CHAPEL HILL — In the aftermath of North Carolina's 85-84 loss against Duke on Feb. 8, Tar Heels senior Tyler Zeller went back home, tried to watch a movie but couldn't. He wound up sitting in a daze, staring. Kendall Marshall, the sophomore guard, stayed home for about a day and a half.
Two days after the defeat, North Carolina gathered to practice, and coach Roy Williams didn't have anything profound to say, Marshall said. There were no magic, soothing words - nothing to dull the pain the Tar Heels experienced when Duke's Austin Rivers made a 3-pointer at the buzzer to give his team a memorable victory.
Still, Williams said, "I just challenged them. It's like I said at that game, they were not going to give a trophy. You know, and we were still going to play again the next day. And the sun was still going to come up.
"I can't remember if it did or not but I know it has since then."
The rematch comes tonight at Duke's Cameron Indoor Stadium (7 p.m., ESPN), where the No. 4 Blue Devils (26-4, 13-2 ACC) and No. 6 Tar Heels (26-4, 13-2) will meet to decide the regular-season ACC champion. Ever since Rivers' shot glided through, silencing a stunned Smith Center crowd, North Carolina has anticipated this moment.
Williams and his players on Friday spoke not with a sense of vengeance, or atonement. They know they can do nothing to erase Rivers' shot. Instead the Tar Heels are hoping to prove how far they've come in the weeks since that defeat, and they're hoping to show, in a sense, what they learned.
"I think we responded well," Marshall said. "We obviously haven't lost since then, which is a great positive. Z's (Zeller) playing his tail off. He's really making a case for being the best player in this conference. And as a senior, we've really been able to lean on him. And I think the greatest stride we've made is as a team, finishing off games."
That's the one thing, more than any other, that North Carolina failed to do when it first played Duke. After Harrison Barnes made a jump shot with 2 minutes, 38 seconds to play, the Tar Heels led Duke by 10.
Then, UNC unraveled, Duke surged and Rivers made a shot that entered the legend of this rivalry. The Heels were the opposite of clutch that night in Smith Center, where in the final minutes they missed two free throws and committed two turnovers that assisted Duke's comeback.
In five games since, though, North Carolina has made the necessary plays in the final moments of close games. In games that haven't been so close, the Heels haven't allowed their opposition to rally.
"We weren't really putting the pedal to the metal (earlier this season)," Marshall said. "But the (past) five or six games, we've done a great job of finishing off teams."
Williams has found plenty of things to like about his team during the past three months but on Friday he said two things have satisfied him more than any others.
"The way we bounced back after somebody beating us by three million like they did at Florida State," Williams said. "And then playing tough enough to keep winning some games after such a heartbreaking loss against Duke."
The loss against Duke was especially difficult on Zeller, who took the defeat "as hard as maybe any player I've ever had take a loss in the regular season," Williams said.
Zeller scored 23 points, but also missed two free throws in the final minute and with 14 seconds to play inadvertently tipped in a shot that Duke's Ryan Kelly had badly missed. Rivers also made his winning shot over Zeller's outstretched arm.
Zeller spent the hours after the Duke loss sitting stunned, but he has played some of his finest games since and has emerged as a leading candidate for ACC Player of the Year. Williams' perfect ending for tonight, he said, would be for Zeller to make a game-winning 3 at the buzzer over "some little guard."
Zeller, who hasn't made a 3-pointer in his collegiate career, laughed when told of Williams' vision. Zeller said he didn't have a similar one for himself - no images of game-winners in his mind. He said he just wanted to play hard, play well and win a game that would give his team a championship, while proving its resiliency.