Duke (27-4, 13-3 ACC) entered the 231st meeting between these hated rivals as the ACC's leader in field goal percentage defense (38.3) in league play, but North Carolina (24-6, 14-2 ACC) shot 57.9 percent in the opening half to take a 51-39 margin into the locker room.
The Blue Devils cut that deficit to 51-46 with a 7-0 spurt to start the second half, but they would get no closer as UNC eventually increased its lead to 80-65 with 1:01 left to play.
North Carolina's 51 first-half points were the most allowed by Duke all season and UNC's 52.4 shooting percentage (33-of-63) is the highest against the Blue Devils in ACC play.
Harrison Barnes led the Tar Heels with 18 points on 7-of-17 shooting, while Kendall Marshall was masterful at the point with 15 points and 11 assists against two turnovers. John Henson added 10 point and 12 rebounds and Tyler Zeller scored 14 points on 7-of-11 shooting.
Nolan Smith paced Duke with 30 points on 9-of-19 shooting and Seth Curry scored 20 after knocking down six of his 11 3-point attempts. The Blue Devils shot 35.5 percent (22-of-62) from the floor and were outrebounded, 42-35.
With its 18th outright ACC regular season title, North Carolina has earned the No. 1 seed in next week's ACC Tournament in Greensboro, N.C. and will play at noon on Friday.
The Tar Heels are the first team in ACC history to win the outright regular season title after finishing lower than sixth in the standings the year before. UNC was tied for ninth in the league last season.
INSIDE THE GAME
Second Verse Not the Same as the First
If you laid the first half box scores of the two UNC-Duke meetings this season side-by-side, the similarities are glaring. North Carolina had a 14-point lead in Durham versus a 12-point lead in Chapel Hill. The Tar Heels out shot the Blue Devils by 14 percentage points in one game and 20 in the next, while boasting plus-nine rebounding edge midway through both games.
And through the first two minutes of the second half on Saturday, the similarities continued with that loss four weeks ago as Duke connected on its first three field goals to cut North Carolina's 51-39 halftime lead to 51-46.
Marshall admitted that the collapse at Cameron was in the back of his mind.
"We talked about it during halftime – don't let it happen again," Marshall said. "But I knew once we settled down and everybody wanted to win so badly that we weren't going to let it happen again."
After Barnes turned the ball over on the ensuing possession to give Duke a chance to cut its deficit to three points, the freshman phenom immediately responded and stole the ball from Kyle Singler on the perimeter and scored in transition. Another defensive stop and a pair of Barnes free throws later increased UNC's lead back to nine points at 55-46 and the fear of a repeat performance melted away.
"We didn't get complacent in the second half," Barnes said. "We knew we still had to attack and we knew we still had to go at them because they capitalized on our mistakes over in Durham. We just tried to keep that same intensity and same aggressiveness and we prevailed."
Duke, of course, kept coming. Curry drained a 3-pointer with 10:55 remaining to draw his club within 64-58, but North Carolina clamped down defensively and allowed just one Blue Devil field goal the rest of the game.
The key to playing Duke is in matching the intensity for 40 minutes, as the Tar Heels found out in Durham. Consider this victory a lesson learned.
"I made up my mind when I left the locker room that the first time I think we're tentative, I'm going to call a timeout and break something because we are not going to do that in the second half and I never thought we did," UNC head coach Roy Williams told reporters during his postgame press conference.
Guards Come to Play
Heading into the N.C. State game on Feb. 23, Dexter Strickland and Leslie McDonald had combined to average 8.8 points on 24.3 percent shooting (9-of-37) in their previous four games. Throw in Marshall's 5.6 points-per-game average on the season and there was obvious concern about a lack of offensive production from the backcourt.
But that triumvirate had collectively averaged 27 points over their last three outings entering the regular season finale, gradually forcing opposing defenses to take greater notice of their scoring abilities. Against Duke, they combined to score 27 points in the first half alone on 11-of-15 shooting, with nine assists and eight rebounds thrown in for good measure.
Marshall indicated the key for the backcourt's recent progression was in maintaining confidence.
"Our bigs are so good down low that teams are starting not to help, so we knew once we got to the rim that we had to finish strong," Marshall said. "Seth and Nolan – they're great guards and we knew we had to attack them. Dexter got to the basket a couple of times and finished very strong with a dunk at the end that put the nail in the coffin. We knew to get the most out of our bigs, we had to keep the defense honest with our offensive production."
The trio finished with 32 points on 12-of-19 shooting, which represents the most points by that group since scoring 33 against William & Mary on Dec. 21.
After struggling with his shot against Duke in the first meeting, McDonald was efficient shooting the ball as well as stuffing the stat sheet early on Saturday as North Carolina built its first-half lead.
"My mindset was to be an all around player," McDonald said. "To do everything – try to hit the offensive boards and the defensive boards, as well as make shots, get a couple of assists and set screens. I was just trying to do my work out there."
The sophomore is just one example of player progression during the course of the 2010-11 season. Over his last seven games, McDonald has tallied 11 offensive rebounds, 22 total rebounds and eight steals to go along with his 8.0 points-per-game average.
There's little doubt that Duke fully expected to grab an early lead once Williams announced that North Carolina would maintain its longstanding tradition of starting its seniors in the final home game of the season. Walk-ons Van Hatchell, D.J. Johnston and Daniel Bolick joined Justin Knox and Marshall for the tip, but the fully-loaded Blue Devils were the ones knocked back on their heels.
Hatchell chased down the tip in front of UNC's bench, Johnston pulled down two rebounds and the scholarship players delivered three quick points. When the walk-ons walked off the court to a standing ovation after 96 seconds, North Carolina held a 3-0 lead.
No one would have blamed Williams for sending his normal starters out to start the game. After all, the ACC regular season championship was on the line. But the tradition of this North Carolina program far surpasses the outcome of any one game, and the walk-ons refused to be an excuse against the fourth-ranked team in the country.
Ridiculous Stat of the Day
Roy Williams is now 23-0 on Senior Night.