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UNC 81, Duke 67: Order Has Been Restored

As a Carolina fan, it’s difficult to capture exactly what this win meant. On the one hand, a performance like this seems to serve notice that this is a team perfectly capable of living up to their preseason top-10 billing, as numerous media outlets were eager to point out that after last night’s beatdown of their arch-rival, the Tar Heels are no longer a “Final Four dark horse.” However, I wouldn’t trade that element of surprise for any of the positives that came out of last night: a team that seems to be peaking at the perfect time, a victory over a hated rival that included a number of plays that will get playback on future highlight reels, an outright ACC title that seemed all but unfathomable a few months ago, and perhaps most notably some measure of redemption for what Alex (accurately) labeled a “soap-in-the-mouth-punishment” of how the Heels closed out the year at Cameron Indoor last year.

This performance couldn’t really be labeled a thrashing, but neither did it ever feel like a back-and-forth game. After the first 10 minutes, Carolina gradually opened up a double-digit lead and despite Duke’s best efforts the Blue Devils couldn’t close that gap beyond 5 points at any time and UNC’s lead generally seemed to waver between 7-13 points the remaining 30 minutes of the game. Of course, there were chances for the Devils to make runs but give Carolina a lot of credit for having a sense of the moment early in the second half, and with a chance to cut the lead to a single posession Duke instead coughed up a turnover and transition layup courtesy of Harrison Barnes picking the pocket of Kyle Singler. From there the Smith Center crowd continued to buoy the young Heels the rest of the way and it was pretty evident that Carolina just seemed to have more energy than their counterparts. Duke struggled to do pretty much everything inside (rebounding, scoring in the post, avoid getting their bigs in foul trouble) and Ryan Kelly and Kyle Singler put up enough bricks to build an addition to the East wing of the Dean Dome. It’s tempting to say that Duke played badly, and that they missed a lot of open shots (both of which are true), but most of the credit certainly goes to UNC’s defense, the strength of this team that has carried them to the ACC crown. Carolina’s length and athleticism bothered just about everyone not named Nolan Smith, as even Seth Curry had stretches where he seemed frustrated.

On offense, the tone was set early as Harrison Barnes hit a step-back 3 and Kendall Marshall proved he could score a bit himself, then started doling out points in transition, and both freshmen played with incredible poise throughout. One of the best signs for this team (and a great credit to Roy Williams, methinks) is that every player seems to have figured out their particular role and how to fill it well. Strickland was probably the only Carolina player who was guilty of taking an ill-advised shot or two, but his perimeter game has improved by leaps and bounds since the beginning of the year and he and Leslie McDonald (who is on fire as of late) can now be counted on to regularly score some points. Zeller did a nice job avoiding some of the foul trouble that plagued him against FSU, and while Henson didn’t have a great offensive game he contributed mightily on the boards and had a putback here and there where needed.

Overall, fans seem to feel an incredible sense of pride with this team, not quite akin to the overacheivers of 2006, but grateful that the Heels seem to be delivering on their vast potential at the perfect time. There’s a reason the students stormed the court after the win last night and it wasn’t just because it was a win against Duke, or that it sealed the ACC title - it’s the sense of accomplishment of having overcome adversity in the form of injuries, transfers, dismissals, defections, preemptive hype, and having arrived at something meaningful not just in their high level of play, but in the genuine camaraderie these players seem to have with one another. Reading Adam Lucas’ post-game take on TarHeelBlue.com, you can feel the affinity these guys seem to have for each other, and it gives you hope that, despite some weaknesses, that kind of talent and genuine chemistry can take a team much further than you would have anticipated. Almost like a certain championship team from a year ago.