Team spirit lifts No. 1 Duke over Tar Heels on road

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- Can I start by saying I can't even imagine running as fast forward as Duke's Lindsey Harding runs backward? Good heavens.

If you saw Thursday's 64-53 Blue Devil victory over North Carolina on Thursday, you know what I'm talking about. The play in the second half, when Harding somehow managed to keep a fast-breaking Alex Miller in front of her. It was breathtaking.

"Whew, she's really fast," Harding said afterward.

Uh … she's fast?

Well, yeah, actually Miller is. But Harding is a little faster, and at least on this night, her Blue Devils were a little better. And by that, I mean all of the Blue Devils, because this was, to use that fabulous coaches' cliché, a "total team effort."

Sometimes those phrases aren't banal, they are exactly the best way to describe a game. You know the setup: No. 1 Duke vs. No. 2 Carolina, famous rivalry, both 24-0, great point guards, lots of kids who can jump like grasshoppers, so much defense you get worn out just watching, first place in the ACC on the line -- which in this case means first place in the country.

And Duke prevailed, in spite of having lost the last five to Carolina, in spite of being the "hated" visitor, in spite of being whistled for a season-high 26 fouls. The Blue Devils did it because every kid that took the floor contributed.

"Everybody did what was necessary," Duke coach Gail Goestenkors said. "We did a good job on the boards to stay with them. And to actually come out ahead (53-49) on the boards is tough, because they are relentless."

The thing is, Duke was resilient enough that even "relentless" couldn't topple the Blue Devils.

Harding once again showed she can be calm and poised right when Duke needs that the most. Which in this case was the entire 36 minutes she was in the game. She had 16 points, split equally between the two halves. She also had nine rebounds (how big-time is that for point guard?) and six assists plus … there was the small matter of defending her counterpart, Ivory Latta.

Harding won't take all the credit for Latta having an almost other-worldly awful shooting night: 3-of-20 from the field, 0-of-11 from behind the arc. But Harding gets a lot of it. Latta never found a comfort zone.

The other thing Harding did was say the right thing at the right time. She could see center Alison Bales was a little frustrated with her offense, and told her, "Look, it's OK. We just need you to play defense and rebound."

Bales did just that. She finished with seven points on 2-of-9 shooting, and centers hate those kind of numbers. But she kept her head together defensively, with 14 rebounds, seven blocked shots and four steals.

"I told Ali after the game that defensively she was a monster," Goestenkors said. "She changed so many shots; she made them think about the shots they were taking. She did a great job on her own person but then helping others as well."

Bales is a very mature young woman off the court, and it has been neat to see how much she has improved in that area on the court, too.

"I was having a little trouble, especially in the first half, scoring," Bales said. "My teammates did a great job of not getting on me, they were very supportive. My rebounding was there and my defense was there. … I think I'll go work on my layups, though."

In the first half, guard Wanisha Smith was the main offensive force for Duke, scoring all 17 of her points. She got into foul trouble and didn't take a shot in the second half, but that's when her teammates took over the load.

In the second half, Bales got all seven of her points and Abby Waner scored 11 of her 16. Those two combined to score the 10 points that took the game from a 47-47 tie to a 57-50 Duke lead with 2:36 left in the game.

Waner was 7-of-16 on the night, but during that take-control stretch she made three shots in a row: a transition layup, a nifty baseline-drive layup and a baseline jumper, after which she pumped her fist with gusto.

"I thought that was the dagger," Goestenkors said.

Sophomore Carrem Gay picked up two points and five rebounds in 26 minutes of grinding it out and trading paint with the Tar Heels. And then there were the freshmen. Joy Cheek had six points. Brittany Mitch and Bridgette Mitchell didn't score, but they combined for 17 minutes that the Blue Devils absolutely had to have because of foul trouble.

"The one thing about our freshmen is they're not afraid," Harding said. "They came in ready to play."

And that's a lot harder to do than it sounds. When teams of this athletic caliber face off, it is a physical test that can easily wear down a player mentally. The smallest mistake is pounced on. Just about everything you do -- short of getting a drink from your water bottle on the bench -- is contested. There is virtually no let-up in the intensity, no chance to catch a breath. In the face of that, Duke's freshmen did what they needed to do.

Afterward, the Tar Heels were not taking this too hard. That's the attitude they get from coach Sylvia Hatchell, and it usually serves them well.

"Pretty simple, we've just got to shoot the ball better," Hatchell said of her team's 27.3 (lack of) accuracy. "We wanted to hold them under 40 percent, and we did. We'll figure it out. We play (Duke) again two weeks from Sunday."

Only Camille Little (8-for-13 from the field, 21 points) looked sharp offensively. Latta said she'd never shot this badly before and won't again. Erlana Larkins, who was 1-of-8 from the field and 2-of-8 from the line, said, "They were being physical, but I've had worse. I just couldn't hit a shot, couldn't hit a free throw, it was like there was a lid on the basket. We'll go over the film and do some things."

Duke, meanwhile, still has Maryland again, too, and that game is in College Park, Md., on Feb. 18. Now 25-0, the Blue Devils have been disappointed in the biggest moments too often for them to ever get ahead of themselves. But … they've stood up to every challenge so far this season. And they've done it as a very balanced team.

"Sometimes in years past, because we did have just one superstar, in big games we would tend to watch them," Goestenkors said, referring to the likes of Alana Beard and Monique Currie, now both in the WNBA. "We ran a lot of plays for that one particular player. Now we've got plays for everybody on the court, and we run them. And everybody knows they need to show up, they need to play hard and they need to play well for us to be successful."

Mechelle Voepel of The Kansas City Star is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. She can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com.