CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- For once, the rivalry that always lives up to the hype was letting itself down.
Early second half. Duke up 17, bewildering North Carolina with its defensive pressure and offensive shot making. The young Tar Heels shrinking. The Dean Dome despairing. Roy Williams fuming.
The only thing left to do was scan the schedule and decide whether anyone in the ACC could stop No. 2 Duke from running the table in league play.
That question remains viable today. But on the way to the coronation, Williams made the move of the night -- the move that turned a rout back into a dogfight, that plugged the rivalry back into the megawatt socket, that gave us the drama that always accompanies a Duke-Carolina conflict.
Williams waved five new players to the scorer's table: Quentin Thomas, Byron Sanders, Danny Green, Marcus Ginyard, Mike Copeland. Five sketchy subs, from a bench that normally goes only a reliable two deep. He chased his starters to the pine and bellowed in their faces when they got there, unconcerned whether his backups were steamrolled at that point.
"I didn't care," Williams said, the anger still palpable in his voice after the game. "I was so mad at that group, I just wanted to avoid being charged with assault. If we lost by 5,000, I was going to keep them [the subs] in there."
The crime the starters committed against basketball was their four straight turnovers to start the second half -- and, worse, acting nonchalant in the process.
"I despise cool," Williams said. "I've never seen one frickin' person who was cool who I liked."
Carolina-Duke is no place for cool. It's a place for blazing passion, boiling intensity, burning effort. And Williams found that heat source on his bench.
Cool was melted down, and that 17-point Duke lead vanished completely in just a shade over 10 minutes. A rout was replaced by a stunning Carolina comeback.
"I thought Roy Williams made a great coaching decision," Duke point guard Sean Dockery said. "That just changed the whole game. Their guys stepped up."
The subs started it. The chastened starters continued it upon their return. The Heels rocked the Devils backward.
But then, inevitably, Duke's guys stepped up in response. Stepped up from five down, with an entire powder blue universe roaring at it. Stepped up just a wee bit higher than the Heels, for a routinely scintillating 87-83 victory.
The unsinkable rivalry rose to the occasion yet again. That's now five Roy Williams-Mike Krzyzewski meetings in the rivalry, all decided by five points or fewer.
This much we learned, on the breakneck journey from blowout to thriller:
Despite its shortcomings -- fearfully weak rebounding and an extreme lack of interior depth -- nobody in America wins close games like the Devils. This makes three straight heart-pounders they've won -- and you can thank the brilliant J.J. Redick for that. (He merely scored 35 Tuesday night, tying Len Bias for the second-highest single-game total by an opponent in the 21-year history of the Dean Smith Center.)
"I think we showed the spirit I've sensed in this team throughout the year," Krzyzewski said.
Duke's freshmen won't wait until next year to assert themselves in key situations. Not after seeing the way Josh McRoberts (a career-high 17 points, five rebounds, a jaw-dropping reverse dunk of a lob, a three-pointer and two key foul shots) and Greg Paulus (seven assists and two huge free throws in the final 20 seconds) performed when it counted.
"It looked like, sometimes, Josh was our coolest guy out there," Krzyzewski said. "He just looked like he enjoyed playing tonight."
Krzyzewski also lauded Paulus, whom he's been pressing for more leadership. At a team meeting Sunday at the coach's house, Krzyzewski introduced Paulus to Alex Rodriguez for a quick talk on leading a team with other stars. It seemed to have sunk in by Tuesday night.
"Greg has to run this team like it's his," Krzyzewski said.
Despite its preposterous youth and lack of experience, Carolina (No. 24 ESPN/USA Today, No. 23 AP) doesn't need to wait until next year, either. You slap a 36-14 run on Duke? Bludgeon the Blue Devils 45-26 on the glass? You can play. Against anyone, at any time.
That's small consolation to the Carolina students who slumped in their seats, heads in hands, after the final buzzer. Williams wasn't in the mood for any consolation prizes, either. But Krzyzewski spoke the truth afterward:
"Carolina," he said, "has done wonders with their team."
Even in defeat, that was the lasting impression. Less than a year removed from losing its top seven scorers, the defending national champion Heels aren't ready to capitulate in their title defense.
Three of the biggest reasons Carolina was expected to struggle this year were seated behind the bench: Final Four Most Outstanding Player Sean May, sidekick Raymond Felton and defensive ace Jackie Manuel. They wound up loving what they saw from their underdog understudies.
"Those guys fight," May said. "This is a young team, and they're going to do some special things here."
They will, and sooner than expected. But on this night, they could not conquer the resolve that makes Duke a prime national title contender.
That resolve flows from Redick. He'd never before had a great game in the Dean Dome, but he rose gloriously to the desperate occasion late Tuesday.
Down 71-66, he scored five quick points to erase the hard-earned Carolina lead. Then, with less than two minutes to go and the Duke lead one, Redick jabbed inside the circle with the dribble, stepped back out and rose for one of his artistic threes. Inevitably, it ripped the net and stabbed the guts of the Carolina fans.
"That step-back 3 was, uh, not bad," Krzyzewski said in an understatement.
But even after Duke reasserted itself and took a seven-point lead with less than a minute left, Carolina rallied with the help of some shocking senior errors by the Devils. Dockery missed two free throws and fouled after the second. Redick threw the ball into the Carolina bench against pressure. The seven-point lead shrank to one.
That's when Paulus made his two big free throws, and then Shelden Williams added one for the final margin. By then, the rivalry had done its job. It had lived up to its own preposterously high standards one more time.
Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.