Do you think Carolina had something to prove tonight?
If they didn't – if by some strange, inexplicable reason they had forgotten about the game in Chapel Hill, just blithely skipping over it like nothing had happened – the denizens of Cameron Indoor soon rectified that. Tyler Zeller was greeted by copies of the Daily Tar Heel from the morning after the loss. The video boards replayed Austin Rivers' game winning shot, a move that particularly annoyed Kendall Marshall. Like any good rival, Duke came out and poked the bear.
And the bear just mauled them, right from the start.
Six seconds into the game, Tyler Zeller scored. The next possession, Harrison Barnes. In fact, Carolina's first nine possessions, all the way through the first TV timeout, were scores; when the whistle finally blew they Heels led 18-5. Duke would rarely get the lead closer than that for the rest of the game. When Zeller had his first breather, the Blue Devils fought back a bit, reducing a 22-5 deficit to 26-15. But the big man returned, and UNC began firing away again, and by the half the Heels led 48-24. It was Duke's biggest halftime deficit against Carolina since 1982. All that remained was to see if UNC had the presence of mind to keep the intensity going for another twenty minutes.
The second half wasn't quite as dominant as the first, but that was almost to be expected. Duke's first half shooting was so poor they'd eventually revert to the mean. After shooting 9 of 34 in the first half (2 of 11 from three), Duke was bound to get somewhat hot. They quickly cut the lead to sixteen before the Heels began responded to very made basket with one of their own. John Henson and Zeller were critical at this point, scoring consistently even as Duke was working it inside to the Plumlees on the other end of the floor. Mason Plumlee woudle lead all Duke scorers with 17 points, while his brother Miles would score 16. With all the big men on both teams playing most of the second half in foul trouble, it made for interesting interior play. But the Blue Devils couldn't make up the deficit trading scores with Carolina.
UNC would hit a rough patch around the ten-minute mark. Up 21, the Heels would rush some shots, and make some silly turnovers. The lead would drop to fourteen, and then Seth Curry would draw a foul while shooting by basically kicking Harrison Barnes while shooting a three. The resulting free throws and Tyler Zeller's fourth foul left the lead at nine, and had Curry's next three fell, things might have gotten dangerous.
But it didn't. UNC held, and soon Marshall buried a jumper just inside the arc to extend the lead. The Carolina point guard seemed determined to erase every criticism of his play and map a strong case for first-team All-ACC. If the Blue Devils were going to leave him open, he'd hit the shot. If they played off him on the drive, he'd go to the hoop. Marshall would finish with 20 points and 10 assists. Duke never got closer, and the end result was their worst loss to UNC at Cameron Indoor since 1989. That's bigger than any of the Hansbrough wins, over the four-year period where he made stadium his own. It's a truly impressive feat.
And a lot of it was good defense. People will write this off as just Duke not making the shots they made in Chapel Hill, but it's not that simple. First, Henson completely owned Ryan Kelly for the second straight game. He would make one shot, grab one rebound, and finish with two points. With Kelly burning possessions like that, and much of the perimeter game struggling – Rivers would make only one three – UNC obviously knew which players they wanted shooting and which they wanted to put the ball on the floor. Seth Curry fell into the latter category, making three of his five threes, but missing all eight of his shots inside the arc, where the bigger players completely disrupted his game. Carolina simply hovered up the rebounds, as well. Duke only got seven offensive boards, the same number that Zeller got on defense all by himself. Both he and Henson would rack-up double-doubles, which along with Marshall makes them the first Carolina team to have three players achieve that since the triple-overtime game against Wake in 2003.
You couldn't ask for a better performance from Carolina. They humiliated the Blue Devils on their own floor, grabbed the top-seed in the tournament, and exorcised the demons that plagued them not only in the first Duke game but all their losses this year. It was pure poetry to watch, it left the Crazies (and Miles Plumlee) in tears, and if we're lucky, it's only the beginning. This team is finally firing on all cylinders. Now we just need to find six teams that can evoke that same response in the tournament, and UNC will be cutting down some nets.