CHAPEL HILL — There are any number of ways to explain North Carolinas 74-66 victory over fifth-ranked Duke, one that had a sea of light blue filling the Smith Center court late Thursday night.
Tar Heels senior Leslie McDonald, in the most challenging of seasons, rediscovered his jump shot. Point guard Marcus Paige, scoreless in the first half, had a strong second half. The Tar Heels pounded the glass, showed their comeback grittiness yet again and finally hit some free throws.
Trailing by 11 points in the second half, the Tar Heels wouldnt let the game get out of their grasp. Nor would their fans let them.
They tightened up the defense, holding the Blue Devils without a field goal for almost nine minutes. Urged on by a boisterous crowd, they won their eighth straight game and ended a two-game winning streak by the Blue Devils in Chapel Hill.
Its a special group, UNC coach Roy Williams said. I just love kids that keep playing, that keep coming at you, keeping coming at you, keep coming at you.
They did against Duke, which led 37-30 at the half and 51-40 with 15:07 left in regulation after a basket by freshman star Jabari Parker, who had 17 points and 11 rebounds. The Tar Heels clawed back to tie the score at 60 on a layup by James Michael McAdoo with 4 minutes, 23 seconds left, then finally took the lead on a basket by McDonald who had a game-high 21 points with 3:53 remaining.
Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski used timeouts in the second half, looking to blunt North Carolinas surge. He could sense something was missing in his team, and let his players loudly know it at times.
It, he said. We didnt have it, whatever the hell that thing is. It wasnt in our huddle. I thought Carolina had it.
We looked tired. We didnt have life. No matter what we did we didnt have that spark or emotion to match what their crowd, their team, was doing.
No one will ever know who might have won had the game between the old rivals been played last week, as scheduled. The heavy snow and ice forced the Wednesday game to be postponed and reset eight days later.
But the Tar Heels (19-7, 9-4 ACC) were the fresher, better, more efficient team this night. That will never be questioned.
McDonald, one-for-eight from the field in each of the past two games, knocked down nine of 12 shots against the Blue Devils (21-6, 10-4). Paige had 13 points in the second half, and Nate Britt knocked down six straight free throws when the Tar Heels needed them most.
We certainly played a lot better in the second half, Williams said. There were a few minutes there both teams were fighting so hard it wasnt very pretty. It was two teams that fought awfully hard and understand where they stand in this rivalry.
I loved our guys composure down the stretch, Williams said.
The victory was UNCs first as an unranked team over a ranked Duke team since March 9, 2003 in Chapel Hill. But as Williams like to say, its more about this team, this year.
Once 1-4 in the ACC, the Tar Heels are playing their best basketball. And Duke had won nine of its past 10 coming into the game.
Rodney Hood had 11 of his 16 points in the opening half for the Blue Devils, scoring on drives and soft jumpers. Parker made his presence felt late in the half.
But in the second half, Hoods shots stopped falling. The Blue Devils missed some layups, shooting 35.5 percent from the field in the half as UNC changed up their defenses and used some zone.
I said before the game we hoped to guard them but we also would like for them to miss some shots, Williams said. I think it was a little bit of both. I thought we guarded them OK but I also thought they missed some shots they normally make.
It was a bunch of kids playing their rear ends off.
In the end, the final seconds ticking away, the game won, Tar Heels fans stormed the court. A few older Rams Clubbers joined in, too.
The opening minutes of the game were filled with blocked shots, turnovers and fouls -- a nervy start. The Tar Heels jumped to a 6-0 lead, livening the crowd even more, before the Blue Devils steadied.
Hood was the Duke catalyst on offense in the opening half as the Devils took a 37-30 lead. Time and again he slashed to the lane, scoring, breaking down Carolinas defense.
Back-to-back drives by Hood pushed Duke ahead 18-12 and he scored 11 points in the first eight minutes of the half. Then back-to-back fouls by Hood soon stymied Dukes momentum.
The Tar Heels meanwhile were getting a nice lift from McDonald. McDonald, who had 11 first-half points, drained a 3-pointer to start the game, kept looking for his shot and hit five of seven in the half.
With Hood on the bench with two fouls, Duke missed five straight shots as the Heels forged ahead 20-18 on McDonalds backdoor layup. But consecutive baskets by Andre Dawkins ended a mini-Duke drought, Marshall Plumlee had a dunk and Parker soon made his presence felt.
Parker dunked. He drove for a score, then for another as Duke moved to a 35-28 lead with 90 seconds left in the half.
Paige, hounded by Cook, didnt get many open looks and was scoreless in the first half. Paige scored his first basket early in the second half on a drive.
Duke used an early timeout in the second half, and Hood and Cook soon followed with 3-pointers -- Cooks just before the shot clocked expired -- for a 49-40 lead.
Another Parker drive gave Duke a 51-40 lead five minutes into the half, but a poor pass by Parker on the next possession led to a McDonald fast-break layup.
The Heels were on their way to victory.
Alexander: 919-829-8945; Twitter: @ice_chip