The North Carolina youngsters showed they learned from the first Duke game in UNC’s 81-67 win against Duke, after all.
After one half in that first game, the Tar Heels led by 14, only to see it all slip away shortly after halftime, with Duke eventually nabbing a 79-73 win.
For that lesson, the players got quite a nifty title – outright regular season ACC champions.
In that previous game, Duke shot 50 percent in the second half to get back in the game. No such luck for the Blue Devils on Saturday as UNC held them to just 33 percent to protect that 51-39 halftime lead.
“We played harder, we executed and we didn’t let the same thing happen again,” John Henson said. “We’ve been there before and its happened to us before, but we learned from it and didn’t let it happen again.”
In fact, Duke never truly threatened – the closest margin in the second half was five points. And that was for 31 seconds.
Duke knew it was in for a tussle in the first 95 seconds, when three of UNC’s walk-ons along with graduate student Justin Knox and Kendall Marshall not only kept up with No. 4 Duke, but left the game with a 3-0 lead.
“I just loved what D.J. (Johnston), Daniel (Bolick) and Van (Hatchell) did in their couple of minutes,” UNC coach Roy Williams said. “The crowd was sensational. It was a wonderful day to be a Tar Heel.”
The crowd fed off the energy of the walk-ons and was rowdy for the rest of the game. After the Tar Heels had sown up the game, the students rushed the court.
The difference between Durham and Chapel Hill, however, was every other Blue Devil. Aside from 50 points from Seth Curry and Nolan Smith, Duke got 17 points from everyone else.
“They played really well. We have to play a lot better than that in order to beat them,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “Especially here. The crowd was terrific, and it was a good night for them.”
The win also marks the fourth time in program history that UNC went undefeated at home. The last team to complete the feat was the 2005 national champions.
The win against No. 4 Duke underscores just how far the Tar Heels have come this season. Just more than three months ago, UNC was 4-3 and coming off an NIT run. They didn’t look ready to compete for anything this season.
“One of my buddies said I got a lot smarter in the last couple weeks,” UNC coach Roy Williams said. “I don’t know if I got smarter, but my team got a heck of a lot better. In November I said I thought this was going to be a team where they would get better and better and better as the season goes along.”
Slowly but surely, as the freshmen took a more active role and the team established itself as a defensive team, the fortunes of the unit turned.
The Tar Heels take the regular season crown with a 14-2 record in conference. That ledger is a far cry from the 5-11 regular season that last year’s team suffered through.
“I won’t even compare it,” Strickland said. “Last year we went to the NIT, and we didn’t even win that championship, so just to bounce back and get better… is a great feeling and a blessing.”
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