DURHAM — Tyler Zeller sat with a Gatorade towel draped across his body.
The junior had won big at Duke. He had lost even bigger at Duke. But this had never happened.
Up by as many as 16 in the first half, North Carolina couldn’t keep a lead that seemed too good to be true as UNC fell 79-73 to the Blue Devils.
“Personally it hurts more this year,” Zeller said. “Obviously, my freshman year we were ecstatic. Last year they dominated us the whole game. Tonight we should have won. We shouldn’t have given them the opportunities we did.”
Zeller did everything he could in the 32 minutes he saw on the floor. He posted a team-high 24 points on 10-of-14 shooting and grabbed 13 rebounds, seven of which were offensive. He led the Tar Heel charge down low as UNC outscored Duke 48-24 in the paint.
But the Tar Heel intensity that helped UNC to an 8-0 start to the game was lacking as the teams came out of intermission. The first half saw 43 UNC points to Duke’s 29, as Zeller was just a rebound shy of a double-double.
Kendall Marshall, coming off the biggest game of his career against Florida State, dished out four assists in the first half, three of which were to Zeller and John Henson. The big men helped UNC to 28 points in the paint in the first half.
“I love playing with him,” Zeller said. “He gets easy layups for me. He’s a great player and a great passer.”
Outside of Nolan Smith and Kyle Singler, Duke couldn’t come up with any kind of offensive production in the first half. The Blue Devils got only 10 points outside of the duo in the first half.
Seth Curry would change that.
Whereas Smith and Singler had been the only emergency boats on a sinking vessel for Duke, Curry came along with life vests for all the Blue Devils.
Curry posted 18 second-half points in front of the Cameron crowd, going 6-for-8 in the second frame. His boost brought Duke back into contention, and Ryan Kelly’s 3-pointer with 9:14 left put Duke in the driver’s seat for the first time all game.
“Seth Curry was big to say the least,” UNC coach Roy Williams said. “Nolan was a load, driving to the basket and getting in the lane and making plays.”
He had to step up for a Duke team that typically depends on Singler and Smith for scoring. While Smith eventually poured in 34 points for a game-high, Singler was held in check the entire night by Harrison Barnes. The freshman, whose first visit to Cameron was as much speculation as his entire season has been expectation, kept Singler grounded to 3-for-17 shooting and 10 points.
But when Singler and his 3-ball weren’t finding the net, someone else for Duke was hitting. And on the opposite side of the court, UNC couldn’t find its stroke. The Tar Heels went 0-for-6 in the second half from 3-land, including three misses from Reggie Bullock.
“My shots weren’t falling for me tonight,” Bullock said. “I just got to get back in the gym and work on my shot.”
Duke players filed into their locker room shouting after capturing their third straight victory against their rivals. UNC’s locker room was as somber as a funeral.
Atop the stairs Williams sat, licking his fingers and flipping through the final stats with a blue pen.
“The aggressive team that plays with the most intensity can usually make up for a lot of deficits,” he said.
The coach couldn’t mark on paper exactly what went wrong. He couldn’t circle a lack of intensity.
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