North Carolina won its 26th ACC regular season championship with Saturday night’s win, while securing head coach Roy Williams’ third conference title in the last four years. The Tar Heels are now 29-2 (14-2 ACC), marking the most wins in school history during the regular season.
Duke (26-4, 13-3) battled back from a 14-point deficit to take a 68-66 lead on a Jon Scheyer lay-up, but the Tar Heels clamped down on the boys in dark blue the rest of the way, as the Blue Devils missed their final 11 shots. Duke shot 32.9 percent (25-of-76) on the night, while North Carolina connected on 40.8 percent (31-of-76) of its field goal attempts.
After being out-hustled during the rivals’ first meeting this season in Chapel Hill, the Tar Heels responded with a renewed energy in the first half, using a defensive twist to frustrate the Blue Devils on the perimeter in building a 42-31 lead.
“We tried to switch all of the ball screens – the first time I’ve ever done that,” Williams said. “And the kids, with two days of practice, really did a great job. Usually I screw it up when I do something like that, but the kids did a great job.”
The intent of the ball screen movement was to prevent Duke from getting so many open looks around the 3-point line. The Blue Devils knocked down 10-of-29 3-pointers on Saturday night, and while they connected on 13-of-29 in the first meeting, Mike Krzyzewski’s squad did not have near as many open looks as they did in Chapel Hill.
“We tried to do it to the best of our ability [and] tried to pick it up as fast as we could,” the junior wing said of learning the new defensive strategy. “I think we picked it up pretty good, actually – especially in two days… I think we executed pretty well. It basically just comes down to communication, talking on defense and talking to each other.”
With the Tar Heels harassing Duke’s outside shooters, the Blue Devils adjusted at halftime by driving to the basket, which allowed North Carolina’s big men to take over. UNC blocked 15 shots, while winning the rebounding battle, 53-44.
Danny Green led the Tar Heels on both ends of the court, scoring 18 points, grabbing eight rebounds and blocking seven shots. His weakside defense was crucial during the second half, frustrating Greg Paulus (15 points), DeMarcus Nelson (six points) and Scheyer (14 points) on their dribble penetration.
“Danny Green was huge tonight,” said Williams, after his squad posted the program’s best ever road season with a 13-0 mark.
Green and guard Wayne Ellington struggled in the first meeting, combining to shoot 4-of-24 from the field. That statistic improved to 14-of-28 in Durham on Saturday.
“We just knew that we had to take care of business,” Ellington said, who added 16 points. “It wasn’t really a focal point. We didn’t talk about it. Danny and I are both pretty bright guys and we knew that we had to step up and make some shots tonight, and that’s what we did.”
Those two stepping up – as well as Ty Lawson adding 10 points and making some crucial plays down the stretch – gave Tyler Hansbrough the needed lift in an intensely physical game. The junior All-American scored 16 points and grabbed 15 rebounds, but for only the second time in his illustrious career, Hansbrough did not attempt a free throw.
However, the Poplar Bluff, Mo. product did become just the sixth player in school history to break the 2,000-point mark (2,001), and the first since Sam Perkins in 1984.
North Carolina’s offense has never been in question, but after Saturday night’s performance on the defensive end of the floor, it will become difficult for various analysts to not give the Tar Heels a chance in March to make a serious run at the national championship.
“I think we are getting better defensively,” Williams said. “I think the statistics show that. It’s something that we’ve got to be a good defensive team if we want to reach those big time dreams that we have.”