CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- North Carolina point guard Kendall Marshall was so excited about Wednesday’s rivalry showdown with Duke, he said, that his stomach hurt before the game.
It must have felt like a punch to the gut afterward.
The fifth-ranked Tar Heels squandered a 10-point lead in the final 2 minutes, 38 seconds at the Smith Center, losing 85-84 to No. 9 Duke when Blue Devils freshman Austin Rivers buried a 3-pointer from the right wing at the buzzer.
It was another Duke-Carolina instant classic. But not the kind these Tar Heels will want to watch over and over.
“When the ball went through, it kind of took me a second to process it -- to realize that we had lost the game,’’ Marshall said. “I was stunned.”
And still was, when talking to the media about 20 minutes after the defeat.
After all, UNC -- which now has lost five of the past six in the rivalry series -- looked like it had this one wrapped up. It had rallied from an eight-point first-half deficit to take a three-point lead at halftime. It had extended that advantage to as much as 13 with a 14-4 run to open the second half.
It had gotten star performances from senior Tyler Zeller (who scored 19 of his 23 points in the first half) and sophomore guard Harrison Barnes (19 of his 25 in the second), whose field goal with 2:38 left put the Tar Heels ahead by 10.
At that point, some in the Smith Center crowd began muttering about whether UNC would reach 100 points, so they could get the two-sausage-biscuits-for-a-buck deal at Bojangles.
Some reporters retired to the media room to start writing their stories.
And although the Tar Heels weren't celebrating yet, they looked pretty confident.
“We had control the whole time,’’ said forward John Henson (12 points, 17 rebounds), referring to the first 17 minutes of the second half.
And then it all fell apart.
After Duke’s Tyler Thornton and Seth Curry made 3-pointers to cut UNC’s lead to four, the Tar Heels turned it over on their second consecutive possession -- and Duke forward Ryan Kelly’s bucket cut the lead to 82-80.
Zeller made one of two free throws. And then after a timeout, Kelly launched what appeared to be a 3-pointer with 14 seconds left -- only to have it somehow go off Zeller’s hand and into the basket for a bucket in Duke’s favor.
“I went up and tried to grab it, and just tipped it in somehow,’’ Zeller said.
When Roy Williams was asked whether he’d ever seen something like that happen, he responded: “No. But it’s Duke-Carolina.”
And in true Duke-Carolina fashion, the rally wasn’t over.
Zeller went to the free throw line, again, and made only one of two, again, with 14 seconds still remaining. That pushed his team’s lead to 84-82.
But with the clock ticking down, the 7-footer ended up covering the 6-4 Rivers (career-high 29 points) on a defensive switch near the 3-point line.
“I should have got up further [on him],’’ said Zeller, whose team didn't attempt a single field goal in Duke's closing 13-2 run. “I didn’t want to foul him, get him to the free throw line, but I should have gotten up further. You can’t give him a 3 when you’re up 2.”
It was a devastating final minute for the power forward, who had played so well -- and aggressively -- throughout.
And a disheartening minute for a team that could have vaulted into sole first place in the ACC, after Florida State’s loss at Boston College earlier Wednesday.
Instead, the Tar Heels left with painful what-ifs. And, perhaps, stomachs.
"It really hurts, because of how we played the whole game,” Henson said. "For us in the last three minutes just to give it up like that is really depressing.”
Follow Robbi Pickeral on Twitter at @bylinerp.