DURHAM--- North Carolina and Duke renewed its Tobacco Road rivalry Wednesday evening in Cameron Indoor Stadium, and a lot of things needed to go right for UNC to get its first marquee road win of the year.
For a half at least, it did, but the Blue Devils rallied early in the second half behind its swarm of supporters and went on to an ugly but effective 73-68 triumph.
"We're extremely disappointed to say the least, but I'm not disappointed in the effort of our team. The intensity tonight was better than we've had all year long, but Duke gets that from everybody," said head coach Roy Williams immediately afterwards.
The early going couldn't have played out much more advantageous to UNC, as three of Duke's key players, Mason Plumlee, Quinn Cook, and Seth Curry, all picked up two fouls in the first half and had to sit out different stretches of that period.
Plumlee, Cook, Curry, and Rasheed Sulaimon all finished the game with four fouls, but were on the floor making plays when Duke needed them most.
The Blue Devils never could get into a keen offensive rhythm in the first half, shooting just 38.7 percent (12-of-31) from the floor and a surprising one-of-four from three-point land.
UNC led by as much as ten points (28-18) around the 6:42 mark of the opening period, but Duke pulled within 33-29 at halftime.
Although Carolina briefly stretched the lead back out to 38-31 early in the second half, the Blue Devils rallied for what turned out to be a decisive stretch, outscoring the Tar Heels 21-9 to take a 52-47 lead at the midway point of the final period.
Carolina never allowed the Blue Devils to blow them out, showing heart and determination that drew praise afterwards from both head coaches, but at the same time UNC can't say it didn't have its chances.
After each team made four of six free throws in the first half, the Blue Devils made a staggering 13 of 14 from the line in the second half, while UNC shot nine of 17 from the line.
That mediocre free throw clip, combined with making just two of 11 three pointers over the game's final 20 minutes, sealed Carolina's demise.
"You've got to congratulate them (Duke). They made 13 of 14 free throws in the second half," said Williams. "I was really pleased with our effort tonight. I thought it was by far the best we've had this year. We didn't shoot the ball well."
"I'm not into moral victories---I told them that in the locker room---but I am pleased with the effort they gave and the focus they tried to give."
"Carolina played hard," added Duke's Mike Krzyzewski. "Down the stretch we hit every free throw. Our guys have been so good at end of game situations to step up and hit. There is a lot game pressure, and I know they are tired. We couldn't sub as much, we don't have that many players. But (it was) a terrific win."
Williams finally bit the bullet and gave P.J. Hairston his first start of the season in order to better match up with Duke's smaller, perimeter-oriented lineup, and the sophomore responded with one of his better games as a Tar Heel.
Although he shot just one-for-seven from three-point land, Hairston made eight field goals in total and finished with 23 points, matching a career high.
Williams dramatically shortened his rotation against the Blue Devils, as only six players played 20 or more minutes.
Hairston and two others (James Michael McAdoo and Dexter Strickland) logged 34 minutes, while Reggie Bullock played a game-high 36 minutes and freshman point guard Marcus Paige played 30 minutes.
Only one Tar Heel bench player (Leslie McDonald, 20 minutes) saw more than four minutes of court action Wednesday evening.
Williams, in typical fashion, wasn't prepared to acquiesce to those pundits and fans who have suggested for weeks that he should insert Hairston into the starting lineup, but he admitted that this was the time he felt most comfortable making the move.
"I started to do it four or five games ago. Everybody has said, 'Well, are you going to put P.J. in for somebody else?' but nobody knows my team. It's popular to say who the hell is supposed to be in the lineup, and they don't know in the dickens they're talking about.," Williams said.
"We started to make that change four or five games ago, but I never felt as comfortable with it as I did (prior to the Duke game)."
"For us, he (Hairston) such a good scorer, and Duke's four man, Amile Jefferson and Josh Hairston, is not a focal point of their offense. They're a three-point shooting team who throws it to Mason (Plumlee) inside, so we hoped that P.J. would battle the guard inside, and he did fine with that. He got a couple of offensive rebounds just on reach."
"I still think it depends on who you're playing," Williams continued. "If you playing guys with two 6-11 guys, it's harder to matchup with P.J. (defensively), and it's harder for them to match up against him."
Hairston gave the Tar Heels emotion and a fighting spirit, making up for his sluggish perimeter shooting by scrambling for loose balls in the post and leaping to tip in bounces off the rim, as well as playing passionate defense, working through screen after screen to get a hand in the face of Cook, Curry, Sulaimon, or whoever else was hoisting up an outside shot for the Blue Devils.
Hairston helped keep UNC in the game all the way down to the final minute, but Carolina's inability to convert key free throw opportunities in the final 10 minutes made the strategic situation highly unfavorable until finally the clock ran out on them.
"If I knew how to fix the blessed thing (free throw shooting), I would have already fixed it. But the bottom line is we're not a good free throw shooting team in games," said Williams. "You'd be amazed at how well we shoot them in practice."
Plumlee and Cook led the way for Duke with 18 points each, while Sulaimon added 13 points and Curry 11 points, including a couple huge three-pointers.
Tyler Thornton also gave Duke a tremendous lift, making three three-pointers for nine points while playing solid defense throughout the evening.
The Tar Heels, who drop to 16-8 overall and 6-5 in ACC regular season play, can't afford feel sorry for themselves in the aftermath of the Duke loss, with the Cavaliers coming into Chapel Hill looking for the first hardwood sweep of UNC in over a decade.
This Carolina team has responded well this season returning home after losses---with exception of the Miami game after the setback in Charlottesville---and it's going to be essential for UNC to rally together and figure out a way to overcome this latest rivalry loss to Duke and move forward in what truly amounts to a must-win game Saturday for Carolina's hit-or-miss NCAA Tournament hopes.