As North Carolina falls, Duke rises

CHAPEL HILL, NC — This was supposed to be North Carolina’s re-emergence onto the national scene.

The Tar Heels fell out of the country’s consciousness two months ago after a series of ugly defeats, low-lighted by a 26-point drubbing at Miami. But, admittedly stubborn coach Roy Williams changed his stripes, switching to s smaller, more perimeter-oriented lineup, and aside from a narrow loss at Duke, the Heels had been rolling ever since.

But No. 3 Duke didn’t have any interest in contributing to the suddenly fascinating Heels’ new-found success, and derailed UNC on Saturday night while also inserting itself into the lead spot of national championship contenders in a 69-53 victory.

With the Blue Devils on tap at the Dean Dome was a chance for the Tar Heels to show disbelievers they had become a formidable foe with tantalizing potential to make some noise this month. Six-game winning streaks usually get people talking.

But instead of UNC making a national splash and re-entering the Top-25, it was Duke making a statement. In a season where seemingly nobody deserves a No. 1 regional seed in the NCAA Tournament, Mike Krzyzewski’s Blue Devils just may have ascended to the role of the national favorite and top-seed worthy with its performance.

Duke’s emphatic victory before a sea of baby blue was masterful at times, and certainly had the look of a team plenty capable of stringing together six consecutive wins when the big tournament begins in the middle of the month.

The Devils (27-4, 14-4 ACC) got back senior forward Ryan Kelly a week ago after a 13-game absence due to a foot injury, and he promptly went for 36 points in a home win over Miami, as Duke avenged a 27-point defeat to the Hurricanes in January. Kelly totaled 18 in a victory over Virginia Tech last Tuesday but had only eight points against the Tar Heels.

But that’s the beauty of this win for Duke. It got its taste of what the 6-foot-10 senior forward can deliver, but this night was for the inside-outside punch that will be most counted on the deliver Duke a fifth national title.

Senior guard Seth Curry (20 points) converted his first seven field goal attempts in helping Duke open leads of 14-0, 22-7, and 38-18. UNC junior P.J. Hairston said afterward the daggers carried psychological value as much as anything else.

After the intermission, it was senior center Mason Plumlee dominating on the inside with a 23-point, 13-rebound night. Fifteen of his points came after halftime.

Carolina (22-9, 12-6) senior guard Dexter Strickland said Kelly had a lot to do with Curry’s and Plumlee’s success on this night.

“He makes it easier for all of them, that is obvious,” Strickland said.

The Blue Devils aren’t back to their cohesion of November and December, but they are creeping closer to finding that old groove. And when they do, what other team has made the strides Duke has in the last week? It is somewhat similar to a baseball team picking up a strong hitter in late August.

But it’s not just his offense, Kelly is also an excellent defender. It isn’t any coincidence that North Carolina converted just 33.9 percent of its field goal attempts and didn’t drain a 3-pointer over the game’s first 35 minutes of action. The Kelly affect and how he completes Duke is an all-encompassing thing. Thus, Duke is now 18-0 with Kelly in the lineup and this is the team the nation must face the rest of the way.

“During the first 15 games with Ryan, I don’t know that we had the best team in the country by far, we had a good team, but we had the best chemistry in those 15 games,” Krzyzewski said. “They really enjoyed playing with one another, they made each other better, and we’re trying to develop that again. It doesn’t just happen.”

If these last three games are any indication, Duke is rapidly reaching that point. How else do you explain routing a red-hot Carolina team in its own building?

Strickland faced the 2010 national champion Blue Devils twice, so he has a keen understanding of what it’s like facing a Duke championship team.  

“They’re pretty good,” Strickland said of the current Blue Devils. “They had Nolan (Smith) and those guys; they’re both good teams. Tonight, Steph (Curry) was on and in the second half Plumlee did his thing and they just had a great team. They are very tough when those guys are clicking.”

Duke is clicking, but it can be better. As for confidence, it wasn’t lacking at all on the Blue Devils’ locker room Saturday night.

“I would take our team against any team in the country,” Plumlee said when asked if the Devils were the team to beat nationally. “We aren’t afraid of anyone and will play anyone anywhere. We’re hitting our stride at the right time.”