CHAPEL HILL — When North Carolina received a No. 1 vote last October in the pre-season predicted-order-of-ACC-finish poll, coach Roy Williams quipped that it must have come from a Tar Heel graduate who hated reigning national champion Duke.
That Roanoke broadcaster who later said he meant to pick the Blue Devils No. 1 still might be able to pull out a few I-told-you-sos.
With a dominating 81-67 victory over fourth-ranked Duke at the Smith Center on Saturday, No. 13 UNC accomplished what seemed impossible after last seasons 17-loss campaign, and improbable as recently as a month ago: it earned its 18th outright regular-season ACC title, and the top seed in next weeks conference tournament in Greensboro.
Duke (27-4, 13-3 ACC), the last team to beat streaking UNC (24-6, 14-2), on Feb. 9, is the second seed.
I told them, the last 10 months havent been easy a lot of times, said UNC coach Roy Williams, whose team shot 52.4 percent, out-rebounded the Devils by seven, and has now won seven games in a row. But that crowd in that locker room has been fantastic.
This marked the sixth time the two teams had met in the regular-season finale with the outright ACC regular season title on the line. And it had all the earmarks of an old-school rivalry game: emotional coaches coming oh-so-close to technical fouls; hyped-up players hitting big shots; a loud crowd rushing the court after the clock wound down -- just before the team took scissors to the nets.
I remember, about four weeks ago, seeing a couple of teams rush the court, and telling somebody that would never happen here were supposed to win, said forward John Henson, who finished with 10 points and 12 rebounds. And then I looked over to see the whole crowd rushing the court, and it was fun.
It was also a testament to how far the Tar Heels have come after failing to make the NCAA tournament last season; losing at Georgia Tech by 20 points in mid-January; then seeing junior point guard Larry Drew II inexplicably transfer four games later.
Led by 12 first-half points from freshman point guard Kendall Marshall (the only normal starter in the opening five, because of Senior Night), UNC led 51-39 at halftime the most points any team has scored against the Blue Devils in a half this season. It helped that the Tar Heels shot a sizzling 57.9 percent in the first 20 minutes, while Duke shot 4-for-15 from the 3-point line.
[A score of] 51-39, thats a half that can only lead to a North Carolina win, Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. It cant be that much.
The Blue Devils tried to make a dent in their deficit, opening the second half with a quick 7-0 run -- harkening back to last months game in Durham, when UNC led by 14 points at halftime, but ultimately lost. This time, though, the Tar Heels showed as much intensity in the second half as the first, countering with four straight points from freshman Harrison Barnes to take back momentum.
I think we stayed a lot more composed at times; we knew they were going to hit shots, and throughout the game, we knew they were going to go on little runs, UNC forward Tyler Zeller said. And theyd hit a 3, and hit a couple 2s. And it was one of those things where we had to come back, hit our own shots, and we knew wed be all right.
And they were. Trailing by 60-48 on a Barnes 3-pointer, Duke cut to within 64-58 on guard Seth Currys sixth 3-pointer. But the Tar Heels got it back up to double figures, again, on buckets by big me Justin Knox and Tyler Zeller . And although Smith (30 points) and Curry (20) kept trying to push their team back, they just couldnt get enough help from their teammates including senior Kyle Singler, who finished with eight points on 3-for-14 shooting. The Blue Devils managed only one field goal in the final 10:55.
Barnes led the Tar Heels with 18 points. Marshall added 15 points and 11 assists.
And as the final minute wound down, and the crowd started chanting ACC! ACC!, and the Tar Heels had to start dodging the rushing crowd, Henson and his teammates couldnt help by be proud.
After the NIT, I never could have imagined this, the sophomore said. This is my first championship thing, and we just want to keep being hungry.
email@example.com or 919-829-8944