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The UNC-Duke rivalry reached a summit. Then came a hangover. Now, teams try to look forward

The past two times North Carolina played against Duke — two dramatic Tar Heels’ victories, though “dramatic” doesn’t quite capture it — provided UNC with bragging rights for an eternity and, in a more tangible way, gave UNC a long highlight reel worth of memorable moments. A few of them made their way months ago onto the Tar Heels’ pregame hype video at the Smith Center.

There was the jubilation after UNC’s victory 11 months ago at Cameron Indoor Stadium, where it spoiled Mike Krzyzewski’s final home game. There the Tar Heels were again in New Orleans, with Caleb Love rising to take the shot of his life — the shot of anyone’s life — in the final minutes and making a 3-pointer that for Duke proved too difficult to overcome in the national semifinals.

For a while, the Tar Heels’ pregame video — played with the volume up and lights down, meant to stir fans into a frenzy in the moments before tip-off — included Jones Angell’s radio call in the final minutes of the triumph at Duke. Angell, UNC’s play-by-play voice, punctuated the victory with a bit of wordplay, or letter play, as it were: “And in his final game in Cameron, Coach K takes an L!”

When the snippet played over the loudspeakers at the Smith Center earlier this season, the place went wild. And then one day it was gone, as were the other highlights from UNC’s victories against Duke early last March and early last April. The symbolism of their absence, however subtle, was obvious enough: The past was the past. The future was now. UNC needed to move on.

For both programs, that has proven easier said than done. North Carolina and Duke resume their rivalry on Saturday — and, no, UNC didn’t permanently end it, despite the boastful (and perhaps jestful) proclamations of its supporters last spring — for the first time since their meeting last April in the Final Four. That game, 10 months ago, took on other-wordly stakes.

It immediately became the rare sporting event, in today’s overhyped sporting world, that was impossible to blow out of proportion. Well, perhaps with the exception of the comparisons to Armageddon. It wasn’t quite that, but it was the first time UNC and Duke had played in the NCAA tournament, let alone a Final Four.

Then there was Krzyzewski’s pursuit of punctuating his career with a sixth national championship. Instead, UNC dealt him the ultimate defeat during an 81-77 instant classic of a victory. Like every great party, particularly ones set in New Orleans, the aftermath of early last April came with an indelible hangover. The recovery hasn’t proven easy for either. In some ways, that hangover endures.

Both UNC and Duke have labored this season to recapture the high of sharing the sport’s greatest stage a little less than a year ago. The Tar Heels, who began the season ranked No. 1, have spent months occasionally living up to their billing but more often falling well short of their potential. Duke, meanwhile, has remained entrenched in a post-Coach-K haze in Jon Scheyer’s first season, which has been equally up and down.

Suddenly, in a college basketball world without much roster continuity, and with most teams operating in a constant state of flux, 10 months ago feels like more of a long time. Duke’s entire roster turned over, essentially, leaving junior guard Jeremy Roach the only returning starter — the only returnee, period, who played a role a season ago and who remembers the pain of those final two defeats against Carolina.

“You’re talking about last year and you’re looking around — and who was with us last year?” Scheyer asked, in a light-hearted way, earlier this week. In a way that has made it easier to move on, he continued, because Duke doesn’t have enough players who really remember what happened at the end of last season. “It’d be like me and Jeremy just having a conversation,” Scheyer said.

In another way, though, Scheyer has had to carry the burden alone, or at least with the company of the assistant coaches, and former Duke players, on his staff. Scheyer acknowledged that the aftermath of and the recovery from the Final Four defeat against UNC “was very complicated.” It was Krzyzewski’s final game, for one, “and the amount of battles I’ve been in with him — that’s over.” And then, immediately, Scheyer ascended into Krzyzewski’s role as Duke’s head coach.

There “wasn’t really time to, you know, think about much,” Scheyer said. “It was all right, you have the feeling of losing, which is not fun ... and then you have to figure out how to put yourself in a position where the program is successful going forward.”

On the other side of the rivalry, meanwhile, UNC celebrated the highest-profile victory in the 258-game history of the series. The Tar Heels practically danced their way off the court at the Superdome, their cries of jubilation echoing off the walls on their way to their locker room, and then for 20 minutes, two nights later, it looked like they were destined to win an improbable national championship. They held a 15-point halftime lead against Kansas.

Quickly it shrunk and then disappeared all together, and when the Jayhawks’ comeback was complete, their victory sealed only in the final seconds, so was the Tar Heels’ journey through the complete spectrum of human emotion. If the victory against Duke two nights earlier, and ending Krzyzewski’s career, represented the pinnacle, then Monday night represented the crash.

For a time, it seemed like UNC might follow a familiar script. Before last April, the Tar Heels had last lost in a national championship game in 2016 on the last-second shot by Villanova’s Kris Jenkins, whose 3-pointer at the buzzer immediately took its place among the most dramatic moments in NCAA tournament history. Fueled by heartbreak, and a mission of redemption, UNC made it back to the final Monday night the next year, and this time closed out a championship.

Any hope of a similarly-smooth redemption tour ended early for these Tar Heels. They never looked all that comfortable, or efficient, in five sloppy victories to start the season — and then came four consecutive losses, which sent UNC out of the national rankings after it had begun the season atop them. The results have been better since mid-December — UNC has lost only three times since — and yet the Tar Heels still have the feeling, and the appearance, of a team trying to find its way.

“I went at ‘em,” Hubert Davis, UNC’s second-year coach, said on Friday of how he treated his players after the one-point defeat against Pittsburgh on Wednesday. Davis’ first team, a year ago, was also slow to put everything together, and didn’t find its rhythm until late. In some ways, its journey to the Final Four a year ago began with that victory at Duke, a win in which the Tar Heels finally played with the sort of tenacity Davis had been trying to will out of them.

The problem, this year, is that Davis is still trying to inspire that level of effort. Sometimes it’s there. Sometimes it’s not. Sometimes it comes and goes in the same game. Asked Friday if he was “doubling down” this week on the same sort of messaging he used before UNC’s trip to Durham early last March, Davis sounded a little frustrated.

“I’ve doubled down on that message not this week, but this whole season,” he said. “I’ve said that since this summer, that in order for our team to be successful, that’s the only way for us that we can be the best that we can be.”

In both Durham and Chapel Hill this week, players took turns offering battle-themed cliches on how Saturday will likely go. “It’s gonna be a fight,” Roach said. “It’s gonna be a war.” Armando Bacot, the Tar Heels’ senior forward, put it more bluntly, if not in a more gory way: “It’s gonna be a bloodbath.” What it will not be is as hyped as the last time these schools played each other in Durham.

Krzyzewski’s final home game produced a carnival-like atmosphere. Students turned Krzyzewskiville, the long rectangular lawn near Cameron Indoor Stadium, into a daylong dance party, tinged with the scent of sweat and cheap beer. Media members from all over, as far away as Los Angeles, came into town to the document the moment. Nearly 100 former Duke players lined the court during a ceremony before the game and then sat behind the Duke bench during it.

Almost a year later, the rivalry persists in much more subdued fashion. Online, tickets can be had for a little more than $500 — relatively cheap for a Duke-UNC game at Cameron — compared to a price tag in the thousands, or tens of thousands, a year ago. On the court, neither team is ranked, which is suddenly becoming a more common occurrence. UNC and Duke were both unranked for their two games in 2021 but, before that, at least one of them had been ranked in every one of their games since 1960. UNC, despite those two victories at the end of last season, hasn’t been ranked entering a Duke game since 2019 — its longest such streak since 1966.

There’s a question now of what becomes of this rivalry, which for so long has been arguably the best in sports. Scheyer is in his first season as Duke’s head coach. Davis is in his second in the same role at UNC. For the first time since 1961, the Tar Heels and Blue Devils meet on Saturday without either Dean Smith or Krzyzewksi as head coaches. What this game has, instead, are two teams trying to find themselves and, in their own ways, move on from the recent past.

It has proven challenging. Duke early last April was dealt the kind of defeat for which there is no avenging. UNC, meanwhile, has been surrounded at times this season of the memory of one of its greatest victories — and certainly the greatest for this group of players. It’s easy for fans, Love said on Friday, to come up to him and remind him of the shot he made in New Orleans. In a way, though, he’d rather forget about it, at least for now.

“If we dwell on the past and dwell on what I did last year,” he said, “that kind of takes me away from what’s going on and what’s happening right now.”

On his right arm, Love wore a reminder of the sentiment, a tattoo that said, “Time is currency you can only spend once.” In a season of transition, both UNC and Duke have attempted to spend theirs looking back as little as possible, and for different reasons.