- Heather Dinich, ESPN Staff Writer
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CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- The No. 2 Duke Blue Devils boarded their team bus Wednesday like they usually do for road games, but this trip was a little different.
They left at 7 p.m.
They arrived at 7:15 p.m.
"It kind of felt like a home game, in a way," freshman guard Nolan Smith said.
And that's exactly how comfortable the Blue Devils made themselves in the sold-out, floor-shaking, Carolina-blue Smith Center. There were times when the noise was deafening, but Duke, unfazed, used its pressure defense, let the 3-pointers fly and forced the No. 3 North Carolina Tar Heels to play from behind most of the game en route to an 89-78 win.
The Tar Heels (21-2, 6-2 ACC), playing without injured point guard Ty Lawson, were the ones who looked out of sorts without their third-leading scorer in the mix. Still, they had practiced as if Lawson wouldn't play, and Tyler Hansbrough said he was so hyped for this game he told his strength coach he thought he might be too excited.
It was easy to see why.
It was the first time since 1998 that Duke and Carolina faced each other while both were ranked in the top three by The Associated Press.
Thanks to Roy Williams' induction in September, there also were two Hall of Fame coaches on the sidelines -- not to mention former UNC greats Sean May, Raymond Felton, Julius Peppers and Bobby Jones watching from their prime seats behind the bench.
And Duke (20-1, 8-0), motivated this season by last year's uncharacteristic 11 losses and first-round exit from the NCAA Tournament, brought its nine-game winning streak the eight miles to Chapel Hill on Highway 15-501 and into the Smith Center.
It wasn't the first time they had seen each other this season.
A few weeks ago, Duke went to Kanki Japanese House of Steaks and Sushi for a team dinner. It also happened to be the restaurant of choice for Hansbrough and Marcus Ginyard. (Nobody went out of his way to say hello, according to a smiling Lance Thomas).
We could be playing for a championship at some point against this team.
-- Duke's Gerald Henderson
"That's how it is around here," Smith said. "You run into Carolina players everywhere."
Wednesday's game had all the makings of a classic Duke-Carolina rivalry game.
Instead, the most hyped game in the country ended up missing that special play -- the one unforgettable, game-changing, Duke-Carolina highlight that has separated this series from all others for decades.
There was no 28-footer to send the game into overtime like Walter Davis made in 1974; there was no 3-pointer at the buzzer like Jeff Capel made in 1995 to send the game into double overtime; and there wasn't The Foul like last year, when Gerald Henderson bloodied and broke Hansbrough's nose (an incident the players have let go of, but the fans certainly have not. Every time Henderson touched the ball Wednesday night, he was booed with the utmost contempt).
No, Duke took the lead with about 11 minutes remaining in the first half and held onto it the rest of the way by playing disciplined, patient basketball.
"We know who we are; we are a very unconventional team," Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. "We are not a very strong, physical team, but I think we are strong emotion-wise and toughness. You just have to hope that you don't get killed at some point in the game by somebody's strength."
That strength Wednesday night was Hansbrough, and at times, it seemed like Hansbrough versus Duke.
Midway through the second half, the junior moved ahead of Michael Jordan for 11th place on North Carolina's all-time scoring list. He finished with 28 points and 18 rebounds, but Duke -- as it has done all season -- compensated for a lack of a post presence and countered Hansbrough with better spacing and a more balanced offense. Six Blue Devils reached double figures. Greg Paulus made six of his team's 13 3-pointers.
"We can't let that happen again," Hansbrough said. "They shot well tonight. A lot of it was our defensive effort wasn't there at times or their penetration broke us down and they got open looks."
Hansbrough said it's hard not to think how different the game might have been had Lawson, who sprained his left ankle Sunday against Florida State, been able to play.
"It's hard," he said, "but that's just the way it happened. North Carolina lost to Duke. We can't rely on just one guy."
Even if that one guy is him.
The Blue Devils separated themselves from the rest of the ACC on Wednesday night. They have won 10 straight and are the only undefeated team remaining in conference play. Heading into this season, the Tar Heels were the ones favored to be in that position, but an unexpected loss to Maryland on Jan. 19 was their first derailment.
"The good thing is, I told the team yesterday that if we won the game today that they weren't going to give us a trophy and stop the season," Williams said. "And if they won they game, they weren't going to give them the trophy and stop the season. We've got a lot of games left to play, but we have got to play a lot better. I have to do a better job getting my team to make plays and make all the little things happen for us."
All Duke has to do is keep it up. When the Blue Devils meet Carolina again in the regular-season finale March 8, this time it will be their home game.
"We could be playing for a championship at some point against this team," Henderson said. "So to beat them, and not rely on another team to beat them, is also a good feeling."
One that's bound to last longer than the ride home.
Heather Dinich is a college football and basketball writer for ESPN.com. Send your questions and comments to Heather at email@example.com.