Sometimes, Duke-UNC basketball produces uncommon drama. This game delivered affirmation

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R.J. Davis held a bag of ice to his left eye afterward, looking like a boxer after seven or eight rounds — not a quick fight, but the minimal amount of damage sustained in a victorious one of moderate length.

Teammate Seth Trimble got him in that one. Duke’s Kyle Filipowski elbowed him in the other. Same play. And Davis ended up getting tagged with a technical foul out of that tangle under the basket, for hooking and holding Flilpowski’s arm, not for fouling Filipowski’s elbow with his face.

It was the kind of moment that, under other circumstances in the annals of Duke and North Carolina, might be combustible, if not a biohazard. They honored Tyler Hansbrough at halftime for his induction into the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame, and when it comes to UNC and Duke, he’s only slightly less famous for that bloody nose than he is for winning four straight games in Cameron. He might have been a quart low after taking a pair of elbows like Davis took.

On this night, it was an asterisk. A coda. An afterthought.

Some games in this rivalry overflow with drama or overheat with anger. It acts as a catalyst, and the ensuing reactions can be as unpredictable as they are unfathomable. But there are other games, like Saturday, that offer only affirmation when these ingredients are combined.

Just as the bright lights and unusual intensity of these games can engender chaos, they can also impose order: clarifying in a way other games cannot, cutting through the noise and laying truth bare. It sometimes can be more of a litmus test than a hate fest.

What Saturday left unquestioned, beyond any reasonable doubt, is that when North Carolina plays like this — and not, to be sure, the way the Tar Heels played at Georgia Tech — nobody in the ACC can keep up with them.

Every time Duke made a run in the second half, UNC had an answer. For every big shot Jared McCain made, the Tar Heels made a bigger one, or outfought Duke to a loose ball. Armando Bacot outdueled Kyle Filipowski. Harrison Ingram, fitting neatly into the rivalry like he’d been around as long as Bacot, was everywhere. R.J. Davis didn’t do a ton, and the Tar Heels didn’t really need him, but he still finished with 17 points in the 93-84 win that wasn’t nearly as close as the final score.

“I think we’re just a really good team and if we continue to play like this, I don’t see why we can’t go far,” Davis said. “I said when we started, the sky’s the limit for this team. The potential for this team is through the roof. We just got to continue to keep doing what we’re doing, and good things will come.”

The Tar Heels looked vulnerable for the first time in ACC play after the loss in Atlanta, and the Blue Devils came in off wins over Clemson and Virginia Tech, winners of 11 of their previous 12, ready to mount a challenge to North Carolina’s dominance to this point.

Instead, what happened Saturday only served to reinforce it.

“I just wasn’t happy with the way we competed,” Duke coach Jon Scheyer said. “You can work your butt off and still lose to them because they’re a really good team, but we didn’t compete to the level we needed to to beat this team tonight. That’s what I’m disappointed about.”

Davis left the final message for the end, waving goodbye to Duke and its fans as he left the court. Ingram pointed at one specific Duke student: His sister, wearing his UNC jersey. And then he said he was headed for Franklin Street, to join the students who were sprinting through the Smith Center concourses in the final minutes to claim their spots.

There’s always that sense of triumph for the victor in these games. It comes with the territory. North Carolina could also claim an overriding sense of superiority that isn’t always on offer. The Tar Heels never delivered a knockout blow. But they wore Duke down, took the punches and gave it all back — not just winning, but winning by TKO.

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