In new era for Duke-UNC rivalry, Jon Scheyer passes first test and takes a victory lap

Andrew Carter, The News & Observer on

Published in Basketball

DURHAM, N.C. — The night before his first game against North Carolina, at least his first one as Duke’s head coach, Jon Scheyer participated in a familiar ritual. He met with the students — 3,000 of them, he said — inside Cameron Indoor Stadium, and delivered the de facto keynote address of the annual informal gathering that always takes place the night before the Blue Devils’ home game against the Tar Heels.

Scheyer’s predecessor, Mike Krzyzewski, began the tradition years ago. It’s a way for Duke’s highly visible men’s basketball program to connect with those who sometimes spend weeks in tents for this one game, and one night, and now it was Scheyer’s turn. He spoke of unity, “and being in this together,” he said, and the scene here on Friday night was still on his mind, 24 hours later.

By then the adrenaline still must have been running high. As a player at Duke, Scheyer experienced four years worth of games against UNC. He was on the Duke bench, as one of Krzyzewski’s assistants, for eight more seasons. Now, though, it was different: his first UNC game as a head coach. The first one he could take ownership of, as the leader of a program he first joined as a teenager.

The reaction, then, was understandable if not expected after Duke’s 63-57 victory. After time expired here, sending those same students who’d listened to Scheyer on Friday into a sweaty throng of delirium on Saturday, Scheyer took a victory lap. He began on the far end of the court, somewhere across from his team’s bench, and high-fived a long line of extended hands.

The band was still playing. The student section was still swaying.

Nobody seemed to want to move, at least nobody who arrived here with a rooting interest in the darker shade of blue. After the Tar Heels’ two victories in this rivalry at the end of last season — one of them in Krzyzewski’s final home game, the other in New Orleans at the Final Four — this was a moment of catharsis for Duke. Ten months of pent-up despair released.

And in the middle of it, there was Scheyer. Who knows how many games await him in this rivalry; Krzyzewski, after all, coached 98 of them over 42 years, and retired 50-48 in the series. Losses Nos. 47 and 48 are the ones that will linger, though, which made the stakes surrounding Scheyer’s first game against Carolina all the higher. No matter what, he’ll always have this first one, at least.


It came with the sort of drama and spectacle typical of the rivalry, which hasn’t appeared to miss a beat without some of the main characters who have made it what it is. Last year’s version of Duke-UNC was the first in 19 years without Roy Williams; this year’s version is the first since 1980 without Krzyzewski. And Saturday was the first Duke-UNC game since 1958 without either Krzyzewski or Dean Smith on the bench.

No matter. Saturday night still came with nine ties and five lead changes, most of them during a fraught and back-and-forth second half. The last of those ties came with a little less than four minutes remaining, when UNC forward Pete Nance made a jumper that made it 57 all. Duke’s 6-0 run to close out the victory came over the final 95 seconds, sending this place into ecstasy.

To reach the moment of celebration, though, Scheyer had to guide his players — none of whom, with the exception of junior guard Jeremy Roach, had experienced this kind of stage — through the stress and tumult of a close Duke-UNC game in the final minutes. Scheyer often thrived in those moments as a player, and he passed his first test as a head coach, too.

The signature moment came out of a timeout with about 30 seconds remaining. Scheyer calmed his team, drew up a play and Roach executed — scoring on an easy layup after the Blue Devils spread out the Tar Heels’ defense.

“For me and coach Scheyer, we go back with this two years,” said Roach, an elder statesman compared to most of his teammates on a freshmen-laden team. “So this is kind of personal; it’s kind of business for us,” he said, referencing the significance of defeating Duke’s archrival — and recent nemesis — in Scheyer’s first season as head coach.

Indeed, Roach is Duke’s only returnee who played significant minutes a season ago. He and his teammates last year navigated the pressure and media frenzy of Krzyewski’s final season, and at times the hoopla appeared to become overwhelming. There’s pressure this year, too, and though it’s not as obvious it might in some ways weigh even more heavily.

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