More than bragging rights and hurt feelings from Carolina’s earlier loss at Cameron this season was at stake. The two teams entered the game with identical 13-2 conference records, and the winner would win the regular season outright, get the top seed in the ACC Tournament and position itself more strongly for a high seed in the NCAA Tournament.
The Tar Heels snapped a three-game losing streak against the Devils and made a strong recruiting presentation on CBS during a primetime game, one that drew very strong ratings according to early media buzz.
Here’s where I admit to a mistake: I work as a recruiting analyst for a living and watched Kendall Marshall play literally dozens of times in high school. I ranked him more highly than most and expected him to become a very good player in time, but he was far more than that on Saturday night and has been all season.
Facing Duke’s vaunted pressure defense and charged with facilitating the offense as well as providing scoring of his own, Marshall scored 15 points on an efficient 5-for-8 shooting while handing off 11 assists with only two turnovers. He played 36 out of a possible 40 minutes and was forced to chase sharpshooter Seth Curry around numerous off-ball screens defensively, yet his stamina proved worthy of the challenge.
Harrison Barnes led the Heels with 18 points on 7-for-17 shooting, not a bad night considering that he had to work very hard on defense against Kyle Singler. Tyler Zeller was solid in the post and played especially well in the second half, finishing with 14 points on 7-for-11 shooting. Everyone’s favorite smack-talking, stringbean, elastic big man John Henson contributed 10 points and 12 rebounds after suffering early foul trouble.
As a team, Carolina shot an extraordinary 52 percent. Considering that Duke is ranked among the nation’s leaders in defensive efficiency, UNC’s ability to pick apart its archrival’s pressure and exploit the weak spots was a big surprise. Carolina also is an excellent defensive team, of course, and the Heels were able to hold Duke to 36 percent shooting.
The Tar Heels won the rebounding battle 42-35 and generally did a good job keeping Duke off the offensive glass, an area where the Blue Devils hurt them badly in the first matchup.
Perhaps the only real fear of the game for UNC fans occurred during the opening three minutes of the second half. Facing a 12-point halftime deficit, Duke went on an immediate seven-point run to open the half. In the first game, the Devils had trailed by 14 at halftime and stormed nearly all the way back in short order, so the Smith Center crowd understandably became concerned and agitated.
The key play of the game may have been a Barnes steal from Singler that led to a layup for Carolina, stemming the tide and allowing UNC to get back into the game before Duke cut into the lead any more deeply.
For the Devils, the team’s three-point shooting went south as it has throughout the season during defeats. The Devils converted just 22 percent from long-range, including some wide open looks. Singler, Nolan Smith and Ryan Kelly combined for a woeful 0-for-15 behind the stripe, and there’s simply no way Duke will beat strong opponents shooting that poorly. The only player to have success was Curry, who knocked in 6-for-11 from deep.
Three-point troubles aside, Smith was the best player on the floor. He read Duke’s high screens beautifully and finished with 30 points. He and Singler also played the full 40 minutes.
Overall, both teams benefited from the game to some extent. While Carolina’s sales pitch to recruits obviously strengthens due to the victory, Duke enjoyed another round of major national coverage as well and was celebrated as one half of the nation’s greatest rivalry.
UNC will play the winner of Thursday’s Virginia vs. Miami contest on Friday at noon. Duke will face the winner of Maryland vs. N.C. State. To view the UNC/Duke box score, click here.