Defense defines Duke, denies UNC
DURHAM, N.C. -- Roy Williams leaned against a wall, his feet extended to the railing in a dimly lit stairwell outside the North Carolina locker room.
He was spent, disappointed in the Tar Heels' missed opportunities Wednesday night.
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The frustration of not getting a shot off in the final 18 seconds of Duke's 71-70 victory was hard to swallow.
Williams muttered that teams don't get a chance to win a game at Cameron Indoor Stadium too often.
North Carolina had its shot. The Tar Heels had the ball, and, despite 23 turnovers and 21 of 22 free-throw shooting by Duke, they still had a shot.
But they couldn't get one off as the ball scooted out of bounds as time expired on a broken play when the option of finding Rashad McCants never materialized due to Duke correctly guessing the play and denying the pass.
Juxtapose that scene with Duke at the end of the game. Coach Mike Krzyzewski, his face beaming, his hands extended like he was taking a presidential victory lap after a hard-fought election night. He motioned to the Duke students, thanking them through his body language, for their enthusiasm throughout the night.
The atmosphere was classic Cameron, albeit the game wasn't as finely tuned as Duke-Carolina games in the past.
Yet, the result spoke volumes of the competitive balance atop the ACC, North Carolina's inability to finish and Duke's defined defense that could carry the Blue Devils deep into March.
North Carolina and Duke stand atop the league with 8-2 records, with Wake Forest a half-game back at 7-2. Illinois' potential undefeated run in the Big Ten is a laughable concept in this league.
"I figured nobody would go undefeated," Duke's J.J. Redick said. "There's too much talent. I did think there could be a team with not one loss but two losses to win the league."
North Carolina center Sean May agreed.
"I would say it was going to be two to four losses," May said. "I thought it was possible [to go through with one loss] but it's too hard with the way the teams play on any given night. The league is too balanced for teams to come in and win this with one loss."
Wake Forest beat Duke and North Carolina at home, but it lost at Florida State and Georgia Tech.
North Carolina has lost to Wake Forest and Duke on the road and doesn't get the Demon Deacons back home.
Duke lost at home to Maryland and at Wake Forest, but it still has to go to Maryland on Saturday and trips to Georgia Tech (with B.J. Elder now) and North Carolina still loom.
"This was a must-win for us," Redick said. "We already had lost one at home, and we know how tough the road is in the ACC. We had to pull this one out. [Playing at Maryland on Saturday] shows that there is no rest in this league. We get a big win tonight and in [three] days we have to play at Maryland."
Redick was quick to point out the coincidence that the last time the Blue Devils had two big wins this season -- at Miami and at Florida State -- they followed it up with a loss at home to Maryland.
"Now we're coming off of two big wins at home against Georgia Tech and North Carolina, and we're going to Maryland," said Redick, whose Blue Devils lost at Wake prior to these two home games.
"This is fitting," Redick said.
But if the Blue Devils play defense the way they did Wednesday then it might not be as formidable. Duke's defense has become its staple.
On the final play, the Tar Heels were trying to run a similar play for McCants they did a year ago in beating Connecticut. But Redick, who knew that was the play and reminded his coaches of that after the game, guessed right. Tar Heels point guard Raymond Felton had Daniel Ewing beat the defense for a second but instead of going to the hoop, as he had done successfully throughout the night, he tried to get the ball around to McCants. Ultimately, it was headed toward David Noel in the corner, but Duke freshman DeMarcus Nelson got a hand on the ball.
"I wasn't anxious, I was confident with our defense," Redick said of the final 18 seconds. "We have a great halfcourt defense. We knew they had a set play. I was just trying to deny [McCants] the ball. The last two games we've done a great job of holding teams down. Georgia Tech pushes the ball and they scored only 65 points. North Carolina does and they scored 70. The only time we didn't recently was against Wake Forest when we gave up 92 points. We can't do that because this year's team can't score that much."
The final play was indicative of how the Tar Heels have finished in big games this season. They couldn't hang with Wake Forest in Winston-Salem and lost by 13. They came back from nine down with five minutes left Wednesday. But they lacked poise on the final possession.
"I should have done a better job of pushing it," said Felton, who had eight of the team's 23 turnovers. Felton said he was looking for McCants but in hindsight should have looked to go to the rim after he had Ewing beat. He had been successful getting to the basket on fast-break opportunities, and he probably would have drawn a defender or a foul if he went to the hoop.
"I could have gone right to the basket for a short jumper," Felton said. "We've got to execute better. I take the blame for that. I've got to do a better job of attacking the basket. Because I could get to the basket whenever I wanted to."
Felton said he's not going to forget this one, not the way it ended. Williams had that same feeling. Duke has now won 15 of the past 17 games in this series, eight of nine here at Cameron and four straight overall.
The rematch is March 6 in Chapel Hill. Sure, North Carolina has to play a nonconference game at Connecticut on Sunday but in the ACC, North Carolina has the easier schedule down the stretch with road games at struggling N.C. State and unpredictable Maryland.
We know Duke has it tough. Wake still goes to Miami, Duke and N.C. State.
It will be hard to match this night again this season, but this league is capable of another encore on another court in the regular season or at the ACC tournament in the MCI Center in Washington D.C.
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.
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