North Carolina's underclassmen were expected to wilt early against the Blue Devils (22-2, 9-1 ACC), but it was the Tar Heel youngsters that exploded out of the tip for an 8-0 lead less than three minutes into the 230th meeting between these two heated rivals. Duke cut its deficit to two points three minutes later, but UNC (17-6, 7-2 ACC) responded with a 10-3 spurt and eventually increased its lead to 43-27 just prior to halftime.
The Blue Devils sliced that lead to 43-37 with a 10-0 run overlapping the break to ignite the Cameron Crazies, and then took control with a 13-1 spurt midway through the second half. UNC got within 73-70 with 38 seconds remaining, but the upset bid would fall short.
Tyler Zeller led North Carolina with 24 points and also grabbed 13 rebounds, while John Henson posted 14 points and 12 rebounds. Reserve guard Seth Curry scored 22 points and added six rebounds and five assists for the Blue Devils.
North Carolina shot 42.6 percent (29-of-68) from the floor, while holding Duke to 41.2 percent shooting (28-of-68, 8-of-26 on 3-pointers). The Blue Devils knocked down 50 percent (16-of-32) of their shots in the second half.
INSIDE THE GAME
A Near Perfect Start
The reason North Carolina was expected to lose on Wednesday night was a starting lineup that boasted two freshmen and two sophomores. Duke's national championship-level experience, led by senior All-Americans Kyle Singler and Nolan Smith, combined with the intensity of Cameron Indoor would understandably be too much for the young Tar Heels to overcome, or so many thought.
Maybe UNC's youth just didn't know any better.
While the Tar Heels darted out to that 8-0 lead, Duke played the role of the team caught up in the grandeur of the moment. Ryan Kelly's game-opening air ball from the top of the key was followed by a Smith turnover on the Blue Devils' ensuing possession.
The next trip down, Harrison Barnes blocked a Singler 15-foot jumper and promptly drained a 3-pointer on the other end. Two possessions later, Smith missed an open lay-up on a drive through the UNC defense. The Blue Devils tightened up and utilized a 12-6 spurt to cut their deficit to 14-12, but the Tar Heels kept attacking, eventually pushing their lead out to 43-27 with 70 seconds remaining before the break.
"Coming into this game, we had a lot of confidence," point guard Kendall Marshall told reporters during his postgame interview. "We felt like we could beat them and I think we definitely played that way in the first half."
The box score was lopsided at halftime. UNC shot 47.2 percent (17-of-36) while holding Duke to 33.3 percent (21-fo-36), posted a plus-nine rebounding edge, dished out four more assists and committed one less turnover (8-to-9) that its opponent.
Unfortunately, the Tar Heels were unable to maintain that level of play during the final 20 minutes, but it speaks volumes that this team delivered its best half of the season on the biggest stage its encountered thus far.
"We've been coming out with a lot of energy lately," Barnes said. "We've been playing harder, but now it's just a matter of playing a complete game. We can't play 20 minutes and then expect the other team to just fall back, especially a good team like this."
An Inability to Match Perimeter Power
Barnes and Singler battled to a hard-fought draw on the wing, leaving Nolan Smith seemingly alone to battle the post presence of Henson and Zeller. The Tar Heel tandem won that match-up handily in the first half by scoring 16 of UNC's first 22 points and posting a 28-12 advantage in the paint.
But give Krzyzewski credit for adjusting his defensive approach at halftime. Duke's nondescript stable of bigs locked down Henson after the break, and once Curry got hot, the numbers game turned in the Blue Devils' favor.
"They doubled-teamed a lot and they pressured our guards a lot more so they couldn't get in a position to get us the ball where we needed it, so it was a combination of the two," Zeller said in detailing Duke's defensive shift in the second half.
Smith, however, ratcheted up his play and took advantage of Dexter Strickland's foul trouble. The senior wore down Marshall off the dribble, scoring 22 of his 34 points after the break. Curry added 18 of his 22 in similar fashion.
"I think in the first half we did an okay job slowing [Smith] down, but in the second half, he and Seth started getting loose," Marshall said. "There's a reason he's averaging 21 [points] and six [assists]."
With Duke clamping down inside, the Tar Heels needed an outside threat to emerge to counter Smith and Curry and loosen the Blue Devils' defense. Leslie McDonald and Reggie Bullock were the expected candidates, having entered this game with a combined 15 3-pointers (34.9 percent) to their credit during UNC's five-game win streak.
That duo was unable to deliver, however, missing eight of their nine attempts on Wednesday.
"We were 0-for-6 from the 3-point line in the second half," UNC head coach Roy Williams said. "I've said all year it looks so much better when the ball goes in the basket."
North Carolina's 14.3 percent mark (2-of-14) from 3-point range is the team's worst showing since shooting 9.1 percent (1-of-11) against Kentucky on Dec. 4.
Don't let the stat sheet fool you. While North Carolina may have outrebounded Duke, 47-41, the Blue Devils inflicted the most damage on the glass.
Nolan Smith drained a 3-pointer after a Singler offensive rebound of a missed free throw to open the second half. Two possessions later, Smith missed the back end at the line, but Singler again snagged the offensive rebound and found Curry for a 3-pointer. UNC's 14-point halftime lead was slashed to six points on those two four-point possessions.
Then with roughly five minutes remaining and North Carolina trailing by four points, Duke once again secured an offensive board off a Curry missed free throw, and Smith capitalized this time with a pair of free throws to push the Blue Devils' lead to 66-60.
"They were just so much more aggressive on the offensive boards in the second half," Williams said.
Crunching the Stat Book
North Carolina outscored Duke 9-0 in points off turnovers in the first half. The Blue Devils flipped the table after halftime, however, posting a 10-0 advantage in that statistical category in the final 20 minutes.