CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- Roy Williams grabbed the microphone and looked across the throng of blue-clad fans still milling around the Smith Center after North Carolina's latest conference championship.
"It's been a wonderful year," Williams said, "so far."
At this point, no one can blame the Hall of Fame coach for thinking big. Not after his 13th-ranked Tar Heels finished off No. 4 Duke 81-67 on Saturday night to win the Atlantic Coast Conference regular-season title and complete an unprecedented climb back atop the league.
Harrison Barnes scored 18 points for the Tar Heels (24-6, 14-2), who earned the top seed in next week's league tournament in Greensboro. Kendall Marshall added 15 points and 11 assists as North Carolina avenged last month's loss at Duke in which the Tar Heels blew a 16-point lead in the first half.
Once again, the Tar Heels built a big lead in the first half, this time 14 points. But Barnes and the Tar Heels protected that margin and stayed in control the entire night.
It certainly eased more of the lingering pain from last year's 17-loss season, Williams' worst as a head coach. By beating the Blue Devils (27-4, 13-3), North Carolina became the first team in league history to win the ACC regular-season title outright a year after finishing below .500 in league play.
"The last 10 months haven't been very easy a lot of times, but that crowd in that locker room has been fantastic," Williams said. "As a coach, where you get your strength is your relationship with the players. As a coach, you get your strength from how they allow you to coach them. This group has just been phenomenal to work with."
When it was over, fans and students rushed the court to celebrate a surprisingly easy victory against the reigning national champions. In fact, Williams addressed the crowd for them to clear off and allow his players to celebrate with his own tradition -- clipping down the nets after clinching a league title at home.
"If nobody else believed, we did," sophomore John Henson said. "And that's why we're at this position."
This game certainly had a postseason vibe to it, from the nationally televised broadcast on CBS -- the first time the network had aired a regular-season game in prime time -- to the winner-take-all setting in the rivalry between elite programs that had won the past two NCAA titles and nine overall.
But the Blue Devils struggled to keep up all night.
In many ways, it was a replay of the first meeting for Duke. Nolan Smith and Seth Curry again completely carried the offense while Kyle Singler struggled to make much of anything while matching up most of the night against Barnes -- the heralded recruit who picked North Carolina over Duke and other schools to cap a highly publicized recruiting battle.
Smith had 30 points and Curry had 20, but the Blue Devils shot just 36 percent and went 6 for 27 from 3-point range -- with all the made 3s coming from Curry.
Singler, who shot just 3 for 17 in the first meeting, went 3 for 14 and missed all five 3-point tries while finishing with just eight points as Duke fell to the No. 2 seed in the ACC tournament.
"We're a confident team," Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. "Just because you miss shots, it's not about confidence. Sometimes you miss shots. If you're not confident, you don't take the shots. Confidence is not our problem. We're OK."
Barnes was more aggressive than in the first meeting, leading an offense that shot 52 percent -- the highest Duke allowed in any league game this season. The freshman went just 3 for 8 and had nine points in the first game but went 7 for 17 to go with five rebounds in this one.
In addition, Marshall was in complete control of North Carolina's offense, repeatedly pushing ahead in transition to set up plenty of good looks or immediately answer back after a Duke score. Marshall had just two turnovers in 36 minutes, which allowed the Tar Heels to maintain a comfortable margin and keep the pressure on the cold-shooting Blue Devils.
"They don't stop attacking you," Singler said. "They're great in transition and if you don't get back on defense, they're going to hurt you, and that's what happened."
Now the Tar Heels will head to Greensboro with a record 28th ACC regular-season championship and seeking to continue their resurgence.
It didn't look like North Carolina -- which has won 17 of 19 games since losing to Texas on a last-second shot in December -- was a real challenger to the favored Blue Devils in the ACC race after looking lost in November losses to Minnesota, Vanderbilt and Illinois, and an ugly 20-point loss in January to lowly Georgia Tech.
But this group played defense well enough to keep its Hall of Fame coach happy all season and has been tough enough to win six games by three or fewer points.
They also overcame player defections and injuries that have left them with just eight scholarship players.
"From where we started at the beginning of the season, it just feels like daylight and darkness," Barnes said. "We came together as a group, overcome a lot of adversity -- people leaving, injury -- and just kept continuing to get closer as a unit and just came together."
Surprisingly, there was little drama against Duke.
The Tar Heels led by 12 points at halftime and never let the Blue Devils get closer than five while avoiding a repeat of that second-half collapse at Cameron. Instead, they spent the final minutes of this one with the sellout crowd at an ear-ringing celebratory roar while Duke managed just one field goal -- a runner from Smith with 5:13 left -- in the final 11 minutes.
- Mike Eades
- Ray Natili
- Les Jones