Virginia's Win at UNC Stands in Duke's Ever-Looming Shadow
Sure, it might be a bit boring to read everything that happens in the ACC as a referendum on Duke (whether Duke is involved or not). Sorry. But as Virginia edged out North Carolina with a late-game run in Chapel Hill to seal a 69–61 win on Monday and draw even for second in the conference, the Zion Williamson-shaped shadow of the Blue Devils’ dominance was the subtext.
The transitive property doesn’t exactly do this justice, but Virginia is damn tough to beat without putting together a perfect night. North Carolina learned that this time around, unable to seal the deal with a 10–0 second half run of their own, even as their opponents’ offense ran dry on multiple occasions. Carolina, by its own merit, had lost just once since the start of the calendar year. The Cavaliers’ only two losses, of course, have come to the Blue Devils, to whom basic competitive logic does not quite apply.
All is not lost, with Carolina and Virginia each 9–2 in conference, an Duke 9–1. Technically, the Tar Heels are still in position to turn the tables—they head to Durham next week, then host their rivals in the final game of the regular season—but if tonight was a litmus test, the sailing is going to get rougher. Despite dominating the glass and winning the turnover battle, UNC shot just 35% against the Cavaliers’ vaunted defense, let Virginia shoot 53%, couldn’t get enough out of Luke Maye (four points) and lost Nassir Little to an ankle injury early in the game. Cam Johnson also missed a few critical late minutes with an apparent leg injury—which was not inconsequential—but the Tar Heels are going to have to take it up a notch.
For Virginia, well, it’s pretty clear it's earned its ranking. In a season like this, beating everybody but Duke is quite a substantial résumé. Kyle Guy and Ty Jerome are one of the best backcourts in the country, the defense remains strangling, and De’Andre Hunter is a menacing X-factor for most opponents. There’s a lot to be proud of, it’s just that the conference, the conference tournament and quite possibly the national title are all going to run through Duke. Virginia can lick its chops all it wants, but them’s the facts.
These are still three very good teams, but even after this one, Saturday’s Duke-Virginia game still feels fresh, and the Blue Devils feel inevitable. Maybe this whole thing goes topsy-turvy, maybe UNC pulls a rabbit out of its hat, maybe Coby White goes nuclear, Duke slips up out of nowhere, Virginia keeps rolling and we’re revisiting this entire thing in a week. If it goes down, it’ll be roundabout. But, for what it’s worth right now, this just doesn’t feel like that. But it doesn’t mean it won’t be fun.