Amile Jefferson knows what it all means.
He knows the emotion, hype and history that comes with Duke vs. North Carolina, one of the greatest college basketball rivalries.
Thursday will mark the Duke captain’s final game against the Tar Heels at Cameron Indoor Stadium.
Duke is 3-0 against UNC at Cameron Indoor Stadium when Amile Jefferson is on the floor.
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“It’s an unbelievably historic rivalry. Two amazing programs,” said Jefferson, who called the Cameron Crazies the world’s best fans in an Instagram live video of campers at Krzyzewskiville he posted on Monday night.
The No. 18 Blue Devils have never lost to UNC at home when Jefferson is on the floor; the graduate student forward was granted an additional year of eligibility after a foot injury limited him to nine games his senior season.
Duke (18-5, 6-4 ACC) lost last year without the 6-9, 229-pound forward and its best rebounder, UNC bullying the Blue Devils on the glass in the regular-season finale in Durham. The Tar Heels won 76-72, which was also the last time the teams met.
Jefferson was on Coach K court for 20 minutes against UNC as a freshman in 2013. He finished with two points and eight rebounds in Duke’s 73-68 win that year.
He started in 26 games as a sophomore, but he didn’t start the 2014 Duke-UNC matchup. When UNC visited Cameron that season, he scored eight points and grabbed eight boards in Duke’s 93-81 win.
Jefferson started against the Tar Heels in Durham his junior year, recording 13 points, five rebounds and a standing career-high six blocks in 29 minutes. The Blue Devils needed overtime to win, 92-90, and when they traveled to Chapel Hill that season, Jefferson played a season-high 31 minutes. He was the team’s second-best offensive rebounder.
The Philadelphia native opened his senior campaign with a career-high 19 points. Prior to his injury, he posted three double-doubles. He averaged 11.4 points, 10.3 rebounds and shot 68.3 percent from the floor in those nine games.
Going into his final home rivalry game, Jefferson, who shoots 60.2 percent from the field, leads Duke with 9.2 rebounds and averages 12 points.
It’s an amazing game. It’s probably one of the biggest rivalries in sports.
Duke is 10-1 this year, 35-3 overall, when Jefferson leads the team in rebounding. With 845 career rebounds, Jefferson is 20 boards away from tying Art Heyman for 14th on the all-time list.
His leadership was sorely missed earlier this year when he was sidelined for road games at Florida State and Louisville after re-injuring the same foot. Duke gave up 92 total points in the paint in those two losses without Jefferson, who leads Duke’s four blocks a game with 1.6 and is one of the pillars of Duke’s defense.
When Duke went 11-7 in the ACC in 2016, he wished he could have been there. He said he knew there were things – like rebounding and playing defense – he could have contributed.
When the Blue Devils lost an emotional game to N.C. State on Jan. 23, a dejected Jefferson shouldered the responsibility for not leading enough.
The last 30 games he’s appeared in have all been starts. The next best on that list is freshman Jayson Tatum, who has 12 consecutive starts.
Thursday, Duke will count on Jefferson’s veteran voice as a guide when it host the No. 8 Tar Heels, who sit alone atop the ACC with a 9-2 conference record. Jefferson is currently the ACC’s second-leading active rebounder behind UNC’s Kennedy Meeks (909).
A win Thursday could help the Blue Devils take a turn in the league, and it’ll be their first of two games in a 41-hour window. They host Clemson Saturday before getting back on the road to face Virginia next Wednesday.
“We have to be really great in practice this week,” Jefferson said. “It’s going to be a huge game. Everyone’s gonna talk it up. It’s an amazing game. It’s probably the biggest rivalry in sports. To be a part of that game is great.”
Jessika Morgan: 919-829-4538, @JessikaMorgan
UNC at Duke
When: 8 p.m. Thursday
Where: Cameron Indoor Stadium, Durham