Tar Heels back on top after upsetting Duke

Ignored for much of the season by the press and the polls, UNC reasserted itself Saturday with a classic performance on Senior night at Cameron Indoor, writes Andy Katz.

Updated: March 5, 2006, 2:14 AM ET
By Andy Katz | ESPN.com

DURHAM, N.C. -- Somehow most of us missed it.

The defining storyline of the season will be the race for both the scoring title and national player of the year honors by the left coast's Adam Morrison of Gonzaga and the right coast's J.J. Redick of Duke.

That won't change. But there was a second headline that didn't get enough play.

Saturday night, for really the first time all season, North Carolina took back the top spot in this sport a year after it went on its storied run to the national title.

AP Photo/Sara D. DavisDavid Noel, one of only three Tar Heels from last season's national championship squad, pulled down 12 boards in UNC's upset of Duke.

People outside of Tobacco Road love to say that Duke-Carolina becomes too much the center of the universe. But the reality is Carolina's 83-76 win over top-ranked Duke at Cameron Indoor Stadium on Senior Night for Redick and Shelden Williams, caps a remarkable regular season in Chapel Hill and might turn out to be one of the defining moments of the 2005-06 season.

"This is just one game," said Carolina coach Roy Williams, who, with all due apologies to Ohio State's Thad Matta, Tennessee's Bruce Pearl, Cincinnati's Andy Kennedy among others, should be 1 and 1A in the coach of the year race after this win pushed the Tar Heels into second place in the ACC, giving them 12 ACC wins and 21 wins overall.

"They're not going to send us any trophy tomorrow and they're not going to eliminate Duke tomorrow," Williams said. "But this feels great. There's no question that this was a big time win for us."

And get this: Carolina, not Duke, enters the ACC and possibly the NCAA Tournament as the hotter team.

Now, come on, did anyone, and we mean anyone, consider this a possibility last April, in October, a month ago? If you did then you're a lot smarter than anyone else in this business.

What Carolina has done this season is quite amazing. The Tar Heels lost their top seven players off a national championship team. The only returning players of note were three role guys in David Noel, Byron Sanders and Quentin Thomas. To be fair, the Tar Heels did have a solid freshmen class, led by forward Tyler Hansbrough. But still, do you really think anyone would have guessed that in the regular-season finale at Duke the four UNC freshmen (Hansbrough, Marcus Ginyard, Danny Green and Bobby Frasor) would outscore the four Duke seniors (Redick, Williams, Sean Dockery and Lee Melchionni) 55-51?

This group, of all Carolina teams, snapped Duke's 20-game win streak at Cameron in the Tar Heels' first win here since Feb. 1, 2001.

This team, of all teams, was able to throttle Redick to a mortal 5 of 21 shooting after he started out scoring seven of the team's first 13 points in a 13-2 start. The first 3-pointer was a fadeaway trey that made it seem for Noel like, "it was going to be a long night."

But the Tar Heels -- notably Ginyard -- adjusted by not letting Redick out of his sight. The Tar Heels sometimes ran two players at him, and didn't let him curl as easily. Ginyard was on him, but so too was just about everyone else.

"We're probably not going to beat a really good team with J.J. going 5 for 21," Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. "You are who you are and we're 27-3 because of using that. When it's taken away, or he's human, it makes it more difficult and we need other guys to step up."

This Carolina team got Williams into foul trouble with him picking up two quickies in the first half. If it weren't for Melchionni burying three 3s, the Blue Devils could have been facing a deficit at halftime instead of being up one.

This Tar Heels team even went up double figures on Duke, as much as 12 with 2:56 remaining. And they did it with four freshmen on the court for significant portions of the game.

This is a Carolina team that has won seven in a row and 10 of 11, while the Blue Devils head into the ACC tournament having lost consecutive games after falling at Florida State Wednesday.

"I think we're something special now," Green said. "And we could be better."

Of course, Duke was going to make a run. That we knew. But there were two key moments that once again proved how much this Carolina team has grown and why Williams deserves the push for national coach of the year.

Hansbrough, who gutted his way to 27 points and is a lock for national freshman of the year, went to the free-throw line with the Tar Heels up 10 with 2:32 left. He missed the first one and then turned to find Roy Williams showing him how to follow through. The demonstration and the willingness to listen in the midst of mayhem showed Hansbrough's poise and willingness to be coached.

Hansbrough followed through and made the second free throw for the 11-point lead.

"He was falling back instead of falling through," Williams said.

But Duke wasn't done (this is Duke, after all). The Blue Devils went on a run to cut the deficit to three in a must-see environment. This was classic Cameron with stars in attendance like Cal Ripken. The demand to get in was so intense that one man, who had flown in from Kansas City with a son and a friend, was walking around Cameron turning down one offer for $3,100 for a pair of tickets and $500 per in the hope that he would get a better deal. This was so Duke-Carolina that just before an inbounds play in the final minutes, with the crowd at a delirious, jet-noise pitch, official Ted Valentine winked and motioned as if to say, 'you can't get any better than this for a finale.'

The easy thing to assume was that Duke would win. Wrong. Dockery drove the lane with 38 seconds left and Green tied him up. Free throws iced it for the final margin.

"This game speaks volumes for our coach and the great job he does preparing us," Noel said. "Right now we're flying under the radar. Nobody expected us to do what we've done. We've done a great job of exceeding expectations."

Duke was quick to point out that it hasn't played well defensively for weeks. Redick was a bit too conservative, saying he hoped they could still put themselves in a position to be a No. 1 seed in the NCAAs. This game didn't affect Duke's seeding in the ACC tournament (having already clinched the top spot two weeks ago) and won't boot the Blue Devils off the top seed line in the tournament selection, either. But this may have placed Carolina on a higher seed line, maybe as high as a No. 3, which could put the Tar Heels with the Blue Devils, albeit in separate pods, in nearby Greensboro for the first and second round of the NCAAs, a week after the ACC tournament is held at the same venue (Greensboro Coliseum).

"We were a pretty confident bunch beforehand," Williams said. "I am confident, and I hope it isn't cockiness, but I told them that I thought we were the only team in the country that could come in here and win this game. We couldn't come in here and win unless we played our best game. At halftime, I told them we have to play our best half and if we did we would win the game."

And they did. But they may have won a lot more than just a game here. They made Carolina the team story of the season. And no one, at least not anyone I know, thought the Tar Heels could be the headline act for a second consecutive year.

Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.

Andy Katz | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com