In the end, the game came down to two simple facts. Duke came to Chapel Hill and played the same game they had a month earlier – heavy scoring from Nolan Smith and Seth Curry, minimal offense from Kyle Singer and no production from the rest of the team. Carolina played a much superior game though, and won easily.
Let's start with Duke's rebounding. The Blue Devils had five offensive boards in the first nine minutes; after the fifth they would lead 17-16. They would have s6even the rest of the game. UNC settled down and began focusing on boxing out – not a difficult thing to prioritize as half the Duke team were ineffectual scoring threats – and turned Blue Devil misses into Carolina fast breaks. And while those didn't always lead to easy buckets, it kept Duke scrambling back, and not pushing the offensive advantage as they liked. Their shooting went south. While Seth Curry was 6-11 from behind the arc, the rest of the team was 0-16. Singler was again shut down on offense. And the Plumlees spent long stretches on the bench in foul trouble, leaving Ryan Kelly on the floor to take ill-advised shots and be a punchline for Carolina fans.
When on offense, however, the Tar Heels had something to prove and weren't about to be stopped. Kendall Marshall appeared to take the prior game's strategy of Duke's defense forcing him to shoot as a personal challenge. He'd finish with fifteen points and, after the Blue Devils were forced to react to him, 11 assists, easily overtaking Smith's 3 to lead the conference for the season. Leslie McDonald was a perfect 3 for 3 from the floor, while Harrison Barnes would not be contained a second time, finishing with 18. The two gave UNC enough of a perimeter game to open up the Duke defense, where Strickland could drive the lane and Zeller and Henson could own it. The pair would combine for 24 points, and Henson would add 12 rebounds.
Carolina made this game look easier than it was, pulling ahead from a 19-18 deficit with a 33-20 run to end the half. From there, Duke would have a hot start to the second but never bring the game closer to five. After the 16:28 mark, Duke would make five shots from the field the rest of the game – four from Smith and Curry's last three. The defense was outstanding, clamping down on the Blue Devils, and Duke did not have the depth to try any other strategy. Carolina dominated down the stretch, and brought home the regular season title in front of an incredible crowd.
When you think about where this team started from, and the troubles they've had along the way, it's pretty amazing. Forget the midseason departure, and just dwell on how young this team was, the hype they came into the preseason with, and how everything could have melted down simply because Barnes wasn't the immediate superstar some folks had built him up to be. But this team improved, learned and honed themselves into a great squad, and did it all in the midst of conference play. They won 14 ACC games. They went undefeated in the Smith Center. And they came away with the top seed in the ACC Tournament. This season isn't over yet, but they've already exceeded what everyone thought they could do. They've exorcised the demons and stand alone as the best team in the ACC.