UNC regains spotlight, swagger of yesteryear

The morning after her team's victory over Tennessee Jan. 23, Duke coach Gail Goestenkors wasn't basking in triumph. She was already worrying about North Carolina.

She knew that her Duke team had made Tennessee look a little slow in comparison to the Blue Devils. But she also knew the Tar Heels were capable of doing that very same thing to Duke.

And Sunday night's second half between the Tobacco Road rivals showed why Goestenkors was so concerned. Despite how unbeatable the Blue Devils looked against Tennessee, North Carolina showed it could be done.

Of course, I kind of doubt it could be done by very many teams besides the Tar Heels. The type of basketball that was played in the Duke-Tennessee and Duke-UNC games was big-time women's hoops. It was very fast-paced, very athletic, very hard-nosed.

The Tar Heels outworked and outhustled the Blue Devils in the latter part of the second half -- that's a major compliment to North Carolina, not a disparagement of Duke. And the fact that these teams know each other so well
and have so much contempt for each other -- there's no other way to put it -- was fuel that the Heels burned better than the Devils on Sunday night.

North Carolina had to deal with six years of losing almost every meeting with the Blue Devils from 1999-2004. You can only imagine how hard that was to swallow. When the Tar Heels finally broke that string -- and did it three
times last year -- it gave this North Carolina group back a swagger that the program once had in facing the Blue Devils.

The Tar Heels thrive on that -- at their peak, in the 1994 national championship season, they were an almost unstoppable mixture of athleticism, speed, quickness, precision and attitude. The only team that beat them that
year (twice) was the one program that -- at that time -- wasn't intimidated or overwhelmed by them, plus knew them so well. And that was Virginia, then still the "boss" of the ACC.

North Carolina didn't necessarily capitalize as much on that NCAA title as perhaps some thought it could have. When the Tar Heels didn't make the NCAA Tournament in 1996, coach Sylvia Hatchell blamed playing too tough a nonconference schedule. And since then, the Tar Heels have shied away from having very many big nonconference matchups -- at least in comparison to a lot of other top programs. Frankly, I've thought that was a mistake. I think
it's part of what allowed Duke to take center stage and become the program of the ACC.

Duke has played bigger names more often in recent years. That and the Blue Devils' success -- Final Four appearances in 1999, 2002 and 2003 -- helped it eclipse North Carolina.

But now, with four consecutive wins over Duke and what's sure to be a No. 1 ranking this week, North Carolina has taken the spotlight back. And in terms of nonconference matchups, this season the Tar Heels also showed their stuff with a big win at Connecticut.

At least for the moment, North Carolina is back where it hasn't been in more than a decade: at the very top.

Mechelle Voepel of The Kansas City Star is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. She can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com.