By Chip Alexander
CHAPEL HILL There are any number of ways to explain North Carolina’s 74-66 victory over fifth-ranked Duke, one that had a sea of light blue filling the Smith Center court late Thursday night.
Tar Heels senior Leslie McDonald, in the most challenging of seasons, rediscovered his jump shot. Point guard Marcus Paige, scoreless in the first half, had a strong second half. The Tar Heels pounded the glass, showed their comeback grittiness yet again and finally hit some free throws.
Trailing by 11 points in the second half, the Tar Heels wouldn’t let the game get out of their grasp. Nor would their fans let them.
They tightened up the defense, holding the Blue Devils without a field goal for almost nine minutes. Urged on by a boisterous crowd, they won their eighth straight game and ended a two-game winning streak by the Blue Devils in Chapel Hill.
“It’s a special group,” UNC coach Roy Williams said. “I just love kids that keep playing, that keep coming at you, keeping coming at you, keep coming at you.”
They did against Duke, which led 37-30 at the half and 51-40 with 15:07 left in regulation after a basket by freshman star Jabari Parker, who had 17 points and 11 rebounds. The Tar Heels clawed back to tie the score at 60 on a layup by James Michael McAdoo with 4 minutes, 23 seconds left, then finally took the lead on a basket by McDonald – who had a game-high 21 points – with 3:53 remaining.
Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski used timeouts in the second half, looking to blunt North Carolina’s surge. He could sense something was missing in his team, and let his players loudly know it at times.
“It,” he said. “We didn’t have ‘it,’ whatever the hell that thing is. It wasn’t in our huddle. I thought Carolina had it.
“We looked tired. We didn’t have life. No matter what we did – we didn’t have that spark or emotion to match what their crowd, their team, was doing.”
No one will ever know who might have won had the game between the old rivals been played last week, as scheduled. The heavy snow and ice forced the Wednesday game to be postponed and reset eight days later.
But the Tar Heels (19-7, 9-4 ACC) were the fresher, better, more efficient team this night. That will never be questioned.
McDonald, one-for-eight from the field in each of the past two games, knocked down nine of 12 shots against the Blue Devils (21-6, 10-4). Paige had 13 points in the second half, and Nate Britt knocked down six straight free throws when the Tar Heels needed them most.
“We certainly played a lot better in the second half,” Williams said. “There were a few minutes there both teams were fighting so hard it wasn’t very pretty. It was two teams that fought awfully hard and understand where they stand in this rivalry.
“I loved our guys’ composure down the stretch,” Williams said.
The victory was UNC’s first as an unranked team over a ranked Duke team since March 9, 2003 in Chapel Hill. But as Williams like to say, it’s more about this team, this year.
Once 1-4 in the ACC, the Tar Heels are playing their best basketball. And Duke had won nine of its past 10 coming into the game.
Rodney Hood had 11 of his 16 points in the opening half for the Blue Devils, scoring on drives and soft jumpers. Parker made his presence felt late in the half.
But in the second half, Hood’s shots stopped falling. The Blue Devils missed some layups, shooting 35.5 percent from the field in the half as UNC changed up their defenses and used some zone.
“I said before the game we hoped to guard them but we also would like for them to miss some shots,” Williams said. “I think it was a little bit of both. I thought we guarded them OK but I also thought they missed some shots they normally make.
“It was a bunch of kids playing their rear ends off.”
In the end, the final seconds ticking away, the game won, Tar Heels fans stormed the court. A few older Rams Clubbers joined in, too.
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