No one said it was going to be easy, well with the exception of the odds makers who had Duke as a 10.5 point favorite over their arch rivals, North Carolina.
What we ended up getting wasn’t a classic but a rather typical, hard fought, close game between the two bitter rivals with Duke prevailing 73-68, thanks in part to a big second half that helped the Blue Devils erase a four point halftime deficit. The Tar Heels came out in the first half and out hustled, out shot and out played Duke.
North Carolina who was led by PJ Hairston who scored 23 points and grabbed 8 rebounds as he almost singled handedly willed the Tar Heels. From the start North Carolina was the aggressor beating Duke to every lose ball, causing significant foul trouble for Mason Plumlee and Quinn Cook.
Plumlee in particular looked lost and was completely ineffective for much of the game. The senior captain did manage to hit some big free throws down the stretch but in general looked lethargic and his play was very reminiscent of the Wake Forest game just a few weeks ago where foul trouble hampered his play.
He finished with 18 points and 11, rebounds, a typical stat line but it was clearly not his best game in a Duke uniform and North Carolina took advantage.
The Tar Heels went with a small lineup and really forced the tempo keeping Duke off balance on defense and out of sync on offense. Duke shot poorly in the first half only attempting three, three-point shots. Seth Curry was out of sorts and with Plumlee struggling it looked like it might be North Carolina’s night.
The second half started much like the first, with the Tar Heels clinging on to a lead until about 14 minutes left in the game. Duke took a a one point lead only to surrender it right back on a couple of North Carolina free throws. But the Blue Devils responded by seizing the lead back and then they starting hitting from behind the arc.
Duke finished the game hitting 6 of 16 from three point range and they heated up at the right time to give themselves just enough cushion to hold off North Carolina’s final push.
It wasn’t a pretty game as whistles plagued most of it. And while many North Carolina fans might have some gripes about the referees, the Tar Heels shot more free throws (23 to 20) and the Blue Devils were whistled for 22 fouls while North Carolina only had 18 called against them.
The difference was that Duke capitalized from the free-throw line. The Blue Devils hit 17-20 (85 percent) to North Carolina’s 13-23 (56.5 percent) for what ended up being the real difference the game.
As often the case it was a couple of usual non factors who played a big roll for the victor. Juniors Josh Hairston and Tyler Thornton, while not superstars, put forth yeoman’s efforts in the victory.
Hairston got the start and played big minutes, especially with Plumlee in foul trouble. Thornton provided a little more fire power in the scoring column hitting a couple of big shot and finishing the game with 9 points hitting half of Duke’s long-range shots.
It wasn’t Duke’s best performance and clearly North Carolina isn’t the same team they have been and thus the stakes weren’t quite as high, still the intensity and emotion of the rivalry was clearly evident. While the game made Duke fans perhaps a little more nervous than they thought it is a win, something they have to continue to do if they are to keep up with the ACC’s top dog Miami.
Duke improves to 22-2 (9-2 ACC) with two tough road games in front of them. The Blue Devils have to put this game behind them fast and while it is always a positive to beat your rival, when you play like that it feels like more luck than skill.
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