With the program from Chapel Hill having won seven in a row, the one from Durham victorious of nine of its last ten, something had to give last night at the Dean Dome as the arch-rivals of Tobacco Road took to the hardwoods. You could say this game was a tale of two halves, with the Blue Devils being in command in the first 20 minutes, while the Tar Heels doing what they needed to do in the latter part of the second half. In the end, it was North Carolina (19 & 7 ~ 9 & 4 in ACC) taking down #5 Duke (21 & 6 ~ 10 & 4 in ACC) by the final of 74 to 66.
In the first half the Duke pair of Rodney Hood and Jabari Parker were clicking on all cylinders, and even if Hood had to sit for a part of it with two fouls, the two opponents had double digit points by the time first half was over. On the other hand, while fifth year senior shooting guard Leslie McDonald had done all he could to keep the Heels within reach, missing seven out of the first eight free throws did not help UNC at all. Add to that sophomore combo guard Marcus Paige was scoreless and junior power forward James McAdoo had not had any impact on the game and you had a recipe for disaster in the venue that Dean built. In some ways Carolina was lucky that they were only down seven when the teams headed to the locker rooms for intermission.
The second half began more or less like the first had ended. The two teams trading buckets, but with the Blue Devils adding to their lead. To the point that with five minutes gone Duke had an eleven point margin over Carolina. And at that point Paige had scored just one basket in the game. Then, slowly but surely, the tide began to change, mostly thanks to the great move by head coach Roy Williams to put his team into different zones. One being the 2-3, which the squad had used before and the other the 1-3-1 that Carolina had never played but Maryland had versus Duke. At this point Duke did have some good looks from the outside, but could not hit them, and while Parker had gone inside in the first half, the freshman could not do the same in the second.
Miss after miss the Blue Devils’ lead shrunk steadily. There was a stretch of nearly nine minutes when Duke did not score a basket, something that a Blue Devils team never does. By the time the game was just over ten minutes from being over UNC was down by four, 53 to 49. In the next few minutes both squads missed a lot of shots, coaches called times outs, and the game felt like it was doing a balancing act. With the match up either going to have Duke retake control or Carolina getting back in the lead, something that they hadn’t had since the game was 6 to 4. It was with about 4:30 seconds to go when the Heels tied up the game and immediately Coach K would call time out. Showing the Duke bench you could see frustration mounting on both the staff and players.
Two minutes later, coming out of the final television time out, North Carolina was only two points ahead, 62 to 60. What happened next? A couple of baskets by Paige, four free throws by freshman point guard Nate Britt (UNC hit 10 out of their last 10 free throws), a score by McDonald and a couple of more shots from the charity line by Paige and UNC was taking this one by eight points. It was probably the best fifteen minutes of basketball that UNC had played all year, and it was done against a team which had dominated them in the last few years. Those emotions spilled on to the fan base, which many have said was the loudest they heard in the Dean Dome ever, which rushed the court once the game was over.
This team, that has had many negative comments hurled at it, has now done something no other program ever achieved… beaten #1 through #4 of the pre-season poll. It has placed itself half a game behind third place (which belongs to Duke) in the ACC standings after starting out 0-3 and then being 1-4. This squad, with five games to go, has set itself up to not have to play until Friday in the conference post season tournament and to be in good shape for the Big Dance after that. I know I will come off as bias in this comment, but coach Williams should be the ACC Coach of the Year after what he has been able to do with this squad. The key now is to keep this improving team going and not fall into any trap games until the re-match with Duke to end the regular season.