Although underdog North Carolina's game plan of milking the clock kept the contest close, Duke, led by Jason Williams' 20 points, eventually ground out a 60-48 victory before a crowd of 23,895 in the first meeting ever between the arch rivals in the Quarterfinals of the Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament.
The Tar Heels (8-20) began the game in a virtual stall - at least the closest thing to a stall in the era of the 35-second shot clock. And for the most part it worked as UNC found itself behind by just a 48-43 score with 4:35 left in the game. Amazingly, the crowd - save for Duke's contingent - which delivered a louder chorus of boos at the struggling Heels than the soaring Devils prior to the game, had come full circle and was behind the Heels that for so long dominated this storied conference.
But an Adam Boone pass caromed off the chest of senior Jason Capel leading to a slam by Williams, prompting UNC coach Matt Doherty to call a timeout. And for all intents and purposes, Duke (27-3) was finally in control.
"That was a big play because it put them up seven," Boone said. "Turnovers were key tonight. I thought we executed really well but they were able to convert our turnovers into points too often."
For example, 24 (40%) of Duke's points came off turnovers and 13 came on fast breaks. UNC committed 17 turnovers for the game.
But for the most part the Tar Heels made this a game because of their game plan, execution, effort and concentration.
"They (coaches) explained it (offense) to us and I think everybody believed in it and I think that was the key," said Boone. "If we executed and took care of the ball while running clock we would have a good chance of staying in the game. And that's what we did."
Basically, the Heels ran what at times looked like a Four Corners and at times looked like the classic sets that Princeton has run for years. The objective was to shorten the game, limit the number of shots taken - especially by Duke - and prevent the Blue Devils from getting into a typical Devils rhythm that can devastate teams.
"I think slowing down any team that likes to score a lot of points takes them out of their comfort zone, and I think that's what we did," said freshman guard Melvin Scott. "They defended it very well and other than some turnovers in the first half I think we handled the situation well. But it just didn't work out."
Many reasons can be attributed for why it didn't ultimately result in victory, but one stands out. Duke.
The Devils did an excellent job of applying pressure as well as pulling back. Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said defense is why his team won.
"North Carolina was superb," Krzyzewski said. "It was a well-conceived, well-drilled game plan. We won because of our defense."
Carlos Boozer scored 11 points for Duke and Mike Dunleavy added 10.
UNC was paced by Kris Lang's 14 points. Capel finished with just seven points but he grabbed 12 rebounds in his final game as a Tar Heel.
The Tar Heels' objective from the outset was to slow down the game and work the shot clock to single digits, hoping to break down Duke's defense while getting layups.
Less than three minutes into the game the Heels had a 5-2 lead as Lang converted a pair of layups and knocked down a free throw.
Both teams traded baskets, albeit quite a few moments apart, before a Jawad Williams layin and Will Johnson free throw put Carolina up 12-10 with 10:05 left in the half.
Duke, however, then spurted to a 26-14 advantage mainly because of UNC miscues. The Heels turned the ball over a few times, including a shot clock violation, and were forced to take some poor shots as the shot clock was winding down.
As Boone held the ball at midcourt and the crowd booing, the Heels slowly got back into the game by executing some easy baskets
A Jawad Williams tip followed by a pair of Capel freebies, a Lang free throw and a conventional three-point play by Lang caused an eruption in the arena and brought Carolina to within 28-22 by halftime.
Despite the loss and unusual season for the Heels, this club that is responsible for the end of nearly every incredible streak built over the last four decades gave their fans and the rest of the ACC a trip down memory lane and an evening of intrigue. Visions of John Kuester and Phil Ford and the days of Dean Smith and Stall-Ball were the talk throughout the building.
For Lang, Capel, Brian Bersticker, Orlando Melendez and Joe Everett, the strange season that concluded with an odd night put an end to their careers in Chapel Hill.
"It was very emotional for me," lang said. "It's already hit me once and I imagine it will hit me again back at the hotel."
"I really don't think it's hit me yet that my career is over," Capel said. "I still see the guys. I've still got my uniform on, so I really don't think it's hit me yet."
Considering the season, why not leave the fans with something to reflect fondly about. And in the process, the Heels, both with their effort and preparation, displayed that they ahdn't quite on their coach and he hadn't quite on them.
"Oh yeah, no doubt," Boone said. "We never quit. We had some rough times but we are very close and believe in our coaches. This is Carolina. We never quit."
Andrew Jones is in his sixth year covering football and basketball for Inside Carolina. He is also in his fourth year as a copy editor and staff writer for the Wilmington Star-News and hosts a nightly radio show on WAAV-AM980 in Wilmington. He has also written for ACCNews and once published The College Game and the former Total Sports. He can be reached via e-mail at: AJWAAV@aol.com.