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North Carolina had made all the stops and enough of its shots that it found itself with a chance to beat Duke after facing a late nine-point deficit.

Coming out of a timeout with 18.2 seconds left, the question for the Tar Heels was who would take the final shot. Would it be Rashad McCants, who struggled all game but has made a career off nailing big shots? Would it be Raymond Felton, who almost single-handedly willed UNC back into the game? Or would it be Sean May, who carried the Tar Heels throughout with 23 points and 18 rebounds?

As it turned out, the answer was nobody.

The Tar Heels watched hopelessly as their 23rd turnover of the game rolled out of bounds as time expired, sealing a thrilling 71-70 victory for the Blue Devils in Cameron Indoor Stadium on Wednesday.

“Handling the basketball and their guys stepping up and making big plays was the key to the game,” UNC coach Roy Williams said.

“We can’t have 10 assists and 23 turnovers and be the kind of basketball team that we want to be.”

No. 2 North Carolina (19-3, 8-2 in the ACC) trailed the seventh-ranked Blue Devils (18-2, 8-2) by seven points after a sluggish first half but was able to claw back into the game by crashing the boards and playing tough defense.

The Tar Heels outrebounded Duke by 15 and scored 16 second-chance points.

But North Carolina was unable to complete the comeback because of those 23 turnovers as well as Duke’s free throw shooting — the Blue Devils, who on the season have shot 71 percent from the charity stripe, made 21-of-22.

Maybe the biggest difference, though, was Duke freshman DeMarcus Nelson.

In a game that most thought would be determined by the inside play of May and Shelden Williams or the outside shooting of McCants and J.J. Redick, the X-factor instead was Nelson, who hadn’t reached double digits in almost a month.

The freshman guard scored 16 points, including 12 in the second half.

“I think they did a great job of containing me, Shelden and Daniel (Ewing),” said Redick, who scored a team-high 18 points on 4-of-12 shooting.

“(Nelson) was the difference in the ballgame. I’m just so proud of him. It’s been an up-and-down year for him.”

Nelson was one of the few Blue Devils who could make a shot in the second half.

Duke made just seven field goals on 24 attempts in the final 20 minutes — six of which were 3-pointers. But they all came at key moments.

After UNC knotted the score early in the half, Duke sharpshooter Redick nailed a fall-away 3 from the corner that was quickly followed up by a Nelson trey.

When the Tar Heels again drew even at 53-53, Duke senior Daniel Ewing sunk consecutive 3’s. A few minutes later, Redick nailed a step-back 3 to push the lead to 67-58 with a little more than five minutes to play.

“The whole thing boils down to Duke made plays and we didn’t, especially on that last play,” Roy Williams said.

But that was the last field goal the Blue Devils would make the rest of the game.

It was at that point that Felton took it upon himself to bring the Tar Heels back, scoring the next six points.

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“I could’ve done that throughout the whole game,” said Felton, who scored 13 points but turned the ball over eight times.

“We were down nine. I had to do something.”

UNC continued chipping away and cut the deficit to one on a transition layup by McCants, who struggled to a 3-of-13 shooting night.

The basket, sprung by a block by Marvin Williams, represented the only transition points for a North Carolina offense that was held 20 points below its season average.

“They just got everybody back,” Tar Heel forward David Noel said.

“They didn’t have anybody crashing the boards other than Shelden. When their big men were in the game, everybody was getting back, and it stopped us from running the way we’re used to running. They did a great job.”

The Tar Heels got the ball back with the chance to win after forcing Redick into an airball on a desperation 3 as the shot clock ticked down.

On the final possession, Ewing went for the ball, but he slipped past Felton, who then had an open look from the top of the key.

Instead, the junior point guard picked up his dribble — and, with Blue Devils stuck closely to McCants and May, was forced to give the ball to Noel.

But once again, Nelson found himself in the right spot, knocking the ball away. The ball rolled through May’s legs and out of bounds as the final buzzer sounded and the crowd erupted.

“It’s real frustrating to fight so hard to come back like that and not even get a shot off,” Noel said. “It’s frustrating, but we’ll live. We’ve got to move on.”

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