Five observations: Duke-North Carolina

We’ve just witnessed another chapter of the Duke-UNC rivalry. This time in Chapel Hill.

Here are five observations from North Carolina’s 74-66 win over No. 5 Duke on Thursday night.

North Carolina’s resilience: Marcus Paige finished the first half without one point. He was 0-for-2. And his three assists equaled his three turnovers. It wasn’t a pretty opening for the point guard. But he shook it off. And the rest of his team followed his lead. With 15 minutes to play, the Tar Heels were down 51-40. But the resurgence of their offense coincided with Duke’s slump. As John Gasaway pointed out in this piece about North Carolina’s improved offensive capabilities during its seven (now eight)-game winning streak, the Tar Heels have blossomed on that end of the floor. They’d averaged 1.12 points per possession during the streak prior to Thursday’s game, per Gasaway. And although that offensive execution was absent before halftime, it reappeared in the second half. Leslie McDonald’s 21-point effort changed everything. Paige’s tough layup in the final 90 seconds was clutch. The Tar Heels could have quit. Let’s be honest. The Tar Heels from two months ago might have quit. Not these guys, though.

Where was Jabari? Rodney Hood was an early catalyst for Duke. Quinn Cook hit big 3-pointers. But Jabari Parker struggled in the second half, when Duke needed him more than it did in the first half. By halftime, he’d Jabari’d the Tar Heels (10 points, five rebounds, two blocks). Other than a sneaky crossover and finish against James Michael McAdoo, he wasn’t really a star in the second half. He finished with 17 points, 11 rebounds and five turnovers. Good numbers, beyond the turnovers. But give the Tar Heels credit for pressuring Parker and forcing other Blue Devils to be the primary playmakers late.

Drought or defense? In the second half, Duke couldn’t score for about nine minutes. Parker’s layup with 15:14 to go was the Blue Devils' only field goal before Cook’s shot with 6:26 to play. After leading North Carolina 37-30 at halftime, Duke went cold after the break. Yes, shots just weren’t falling for the Blue Devils. But the Tar Heels -- renewed by the return of McAdoo and other players who were limited by foul trouble in the first half -- really clogged the lane and made every attempt difficult for the Blue Devils. And they wouldn't let Duke (5-for-22 from the 3-point line) breathe on the perimeter. North Carolina’s defense was critical during its emergence from an 11-point hole.

Don’t forget about Plumlee In terms of perception and expectations, Marshall Plumlee’s last name hasn’t helped his cause. His brothers, Mason and Miles, are both talented young NBA contributors. Marshall entered Thursday’s contest averaging just 7.5 mpg for the Blue Devils. He was solid against the Tar Heels, though. His final stat line wasn’t mind-blowing. But he looked like a serviceable sophomore big man. He grabbed key rebounds down the stretch. He was a strong defender. He faced foul trouble but he played through it. Plumlee’s attitude and aggression was a factor in the matchup. He also proved that he can help Duke in big games the rest of the way.

Wow! This is a special rivalry. We all know that. Once Duke took control in the first half and extended its lead after halftime, however, it didn’t feel special. It felt like an ordinary, semi-lopsided game. Duke would pick up another quality win and the Tar Heels would face questions about their poor free throw shooting and turnovers postgame. And then things changed. That’s what happens in college basketball. The same North Carolina team that was down by 11 points launched a comeback. The same North Carolina team that couldn’t find the rim began to hit shots. Duke didn’t break, though. The Blue Devils kept fighting through a lengthy drought. But it just wasn’t enough. That was an amazing turnaround. That was an amazing game. We were lucky to see it all unfold.