DURHAM, N.C. -- This is what everyone expected North Carolina to be right about now: the ACC regular-season champion, the top seed in next week’s league tournament, in the mix for a No. 1 seed in the NCAAs.
It’s just not quite the way everyone expected the Tar Heels to achieve it all.
Dismissed as lacking heart after losing by 33 points at Florida State on Jan. 14, overlooked as focusless after losing a 10-point lead (and the game) to Duke in the final three minutes Feb. 8, sixth-ranked UNC finally showed what all the ballyhoo was about in the first place during its 88-70 victory over the third-ranked Blue Devils on Saturday night.
For only the second time this season, all five starters finished in double figures.
For the first game since December 2003, three Tar Heels finished with double-doubles.
They dominated the backboards (45-28), held a perimeter-reliant opponent to worse than 30 percent 3-point shooting (6-for-21), and never trailed.
All against a top-five foe.
“One thing that we talked about is people are going to put you on a pedestal to knock you down,’’ said point guard Kendall Marshall, who finished with 20 points and 10 assists. “That’s what happens. We weren’t going to be perfect unless we went out and won every game by 30. That’s not what happened … we learned from our mistakes, we continued to get better. And now it’s all starting to come together.”
In beating the Blue Devils (26-5, 13-3 ACC) by their largest margin at Cameron Indoor Stadium since 1989, the Tar Heels (27-4, 14-2) showed what they had learned from their previous four losses:
How to dictate tempo and energy (via UNLV and FSU).
How to keep a lead after building one (via Kentucky and Duke the first time).
Marshall was already annoyed about seeing Duke guard Austin Rivers’ game-winning shot from the first meeting seemingly every time he turned on the TV. So he grew downright hostile when he saw it replayed as part of a highlight montage on Cameron’s video board before pregame introductions.
“I told my teammates that was disrespectful, and we’ve got to go out here and prove a point,’’ Marshall said. “Obviously they feel like they have that edge, that swagger over us right now, being that they won in our gym. It left a bad taste in our mouth, and we wanted to be able to come out and win today.”
Thus, they “played angry,” as UNC forward John Henson (13 points, 10 rebounds) put it, using an early 18-1 run to build a 22-5 lead within the first eight minutes.
By halftime, they pushed their advantage to 24, holding the ACC’s best 3-point shooting team to 2-for-11 from behind the arc in the first half while shooting better than 52 percent themselves.
“We were overwhelmed in the first half,’’ Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “They just played beautiful basketball. They were so efficient. They are a great team -- they are not a good team, they are a great team.”
Of course, Duke rallied. In this rivalry, what else would you expect?
And when Blue Devils forward Miles Plumlee (16 points) cut the lead to 75-64 on two free throws with 6:01 left, no one could help but remember that game three weeks earlier, when Duke also came back.
“We were up 14 with three minutes and something left … and I told everyone during a timeout, basically, to remember what happened last time, and don’t let it happen again,’’ said senior forward Tyler Zeller (19 points, 10 rebounds).
After Duke's Seth Curry missed a jumper, UNC forward James Michael McAdoo extended the lead to 15 with 3:03 left on an offensive rebound and layup. Sophomore Harrison Barnes followed with a 3-pointer to give his team an 18-point cushion with 2:04 left.
Zeller -- who missed two free throws, accidentally tipped in a Duke shot and was the defender on Rivers’ winning 3 in the previous meeting -- scored five more points before he fouled out with 51 seconds to go. But he actually felt comfortable enough with the lead, he said, to enjoy the final seconds from the bench.
Ah, sweet vengeance.
“I think this game was definitely just recalling everything that we’ve been through this whole season, everything we learned to build up to this,'' said Barnes (16 points).
The key now, the players agreed, is to keep building -- and keep exceeding the outside expectations that were downgraded after their losses this season.
“My team has had to bounce back all year long,’’ UNC coach Roy Williams said. “We go down to Florida State and lose by 3 million, everyone’s jumping off the bandwagon and saying no team is going to lose like that and be that good of a team. And our team kept playing. We lose to Duke and everyone’s got a great opinion about how stupid we are and how bad we are, and my team kept playing.
“The best thing about my team is they’re pretty tough. I mean that’s some pretty big plays they’ve had to bounce back from, and I think they’ve done a nice job. Right now they’re regular-season ACC champions.”
Follow Robbi Pickeral on Twitter at @bylinerp.