CHAPEL HILL — Dukes dominant 69-53 victory against North Carolina here on Saturday night might been expected in the middle of February, when the teams played for the first time in Durham in Cameron Indoor Stadium.
But it wasnt expected now. Not at the Smith Center. Not after the Tar Heels late-season surge since changing their starting lineup, and not after the Blue Devils recent struggles in hostile road environments, and their continued adjustment to return of Ryan Kelly.
After so much early-season turmoil, and after so many Tar Heels supporters had abandoned ship, as UNC coach Roy Williams put it on Friday, the Heels had a chance, with a victory, to tie Duke for second place in the ACC.
Just a few minutes after tip-off, though, UNCs focus might not have been on winning, but instead on just getting back into the game. Duke (27-4, 14-4 ACC) scored the first 14 points, a dizzying stretch of dominance that considerably reduced the decibel level inside the Smith Center.
It was like we werent even out there, said James Michael McAdoo, the Heels sophomore forward.
Nearly 37 minutes remained after Duke opened the game with 14 points. Looking back, though, it was all but over then. The Tar Heels (22-9, 12-6) never cut the Blue Devils lead into single digits, never really made Duke uncomfortable and never seriously threatened to make a game of it.
For Duke, this was another opportunity to build momentum amid the return of Kelly, the senior forward who missed 13 games after suffering a broken foot in January. Ryan scored 36 points in his first game back, last week against Miami, and then finished with 18 against Virginia Tech.
He was far less productive here on Saturday and finished with eight points. Yet his presence alone caused problems.
We kind of figured they would be keyed in on him, said Mason Plumlee, the Duke senior forward who finished with a game-high 23 points. He had about 50 points in the last two games. And I thought he still played well, (and) thats not easy when guys are gunning for you.
We have a good balance between myself, Seth (Curry) and Ryan, and then when Quinn (Cook) is scoring, too, its hard to defend.
Indeed it was for the Heels, who at times failed to defend all of those players. Curry, who finished with 20 points, dominated early, and made his first eight shots of the game. He made long 3-pointers. He made medium-range jump shots. He made runners in the lane. He made one shot while falling backwards.
That half was unbelievable, really, Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said.
Curry missed his final two shots of the first half the only blemishes on a performance that people will remember for a while. By then, though, those missed shots didnt matter much. Curry had 18 points by halftime, and Duke led 42-24.
Needing a surge to start the second half, the Tar Heels didnt produce one. And thats when they couldnt stop Plumlee, either. He scored Dukes first 10 points of the second half. Six of those points came on two three-point plays off of alley-oops.
Seths performance in the first half he was just the best player on the court, Krzyzewski said. And in the second half, we had the best player on the court in Mason. It just turned out that in those two halves, those kids were two of the difference-makers.
For UNC, this was another opportunity to prove how far it had come in the past month since Williams began using a four-guard starting lineup. The Tar Heels entered Saturday on a six-game winning streak their longest of the season but Williams greatest fear about a guard-heavy lineup might have been realized.
One of the characteristics of this team the last three weeks was we made shots, Williams said.
But it didnt against Duke. Not this time. The Tar Heels shot just 33.9 percent, their second-worst percentage of the season. It brought back memories of poor shooting performances in losses at Texas, at Indiana and at Virginia. Duke shot 69.2 percent in the first half, and 55.1 percent overall.
UNCs first 3-pointer on Saturday didnt come until P.J. Hairston made one with about five minutes to play. The crowded erupted in its loudest cheer of the night, and there was still hope.
But not for long. Cook, Dukes sophomore guard, made a layup to push the lead back up to 16, and Dexter Strickland, a senior playing in his final game in the Smith Center, missed a layup on the other end for UNC. After that, Cook, who finished with 12, made another runner in the lane this one right as the shot clock expired.
McAdoo led UNC with 15 points, and Hairston had 14. The Heels never did get going from the outside not even late and made just one of its 14 3-point attempts.
While Duke celebrated, UNCs Reggie Bullock characterized his teams reaction to defeat.
I feel like were going to come out more hungry, he said.
This wasnt about hunger, though. From the start, Duke simply imposed its will hit us right in the mouth, Williams said and UNC, as much as it wanted, never recovered. The Heels didnt make many shots, either. During one late sequence, they missed three consecutive shots from about three feet.
By then, it was long over. After Cooks layup with three minutes to play, UNC called a timeout. The Smith Center began to empty.
--Duke freshman Rasheed Sulaimon didnt start for the second time this season, as Tyler Thornton took his place. Coach Mike Krzyzewski had been critical of Sulaimon Friday, saying Hes got to react a little bit differently, more energy, better defense, rebounding. Thornton made his first attempt from the field, a 3-pointer that put Duke up 5-0. Sulaimon entered the game at the 15:13 mark and recorded just one first-half point and three rebounds. He did not score in the second half.
--With 13:37 left in the game, Tyler Thornton dove for a loose ball and threw it off of Reggie Bullock to give the Blue Devils possession. Plays like that are the reason Thornton got the start over Sulaimon.
--Even with Ryan Kelly playing just 11 first-half minutes, Dukes offense was borderline unstoppable in the opening half. The Blue Devils shot 69.2 percent from the floor, and, at one point, were 13-for-16 from the floor. North Carolina was 4 for 16 and finished the half shooting 27.3 percent from the field.
--The 24 first-half points represented the second-lowest output for the Tar Heels this season they scored 18 in the first 20 minutes against Butler in November. Entering the game, North Carolina was 1-4 when scoring fewer than 31 first-half points.
--Seth Curry had a hot hand early at Virginia Tech, scoring 19 points on 5-of-10 shooting, but he outdid that performance in the first half against the Tar Heels. Curry made his first seven shots, including a tough turnaround jumper as he was running the baseline and then a seated jumper as he slipped in the lane. The senior finished with 18 first-half points on 8-of-10 shooting.
--Duke established Mason Plumlee early in the second half, as he scored the Blue Devils first 10 points. Four of them came on back-to-back ally-oops from Quinn Cook one was finished through a foul, resulting in a 3-point play. His next basket came midway through the half on a dunk he turned into a reverse slam.
--The Tar Heels went to a 2-3 zone for two possessions in the second half when Seth Curry was on the bench for Duke. The move resulted in two Duke turnovers. Virginia Tech also had some success with a 2-3 zone against Duke, but a couple of 3-pointers broke that.
--At the end of the broadcast, ESPN analyst Dick Vitale paid tribute to recently retired News & Observer sports columnist Caulton Tudor. "I miss Caulton Tudor," Vitale said. "Terrific writer, retired, really should be here covering this game, finishing his career covering the ACC. We'll miss you, Mr. Tudor. You've done a phenomenal job. I stole a lot of info from your columns."
--Laura Keeley and Luke DeCock
Carter: 919-829-8944 Twitter: @_andrewcarter