UNC's rout of Duke fueled by anger
DURHAM, N.C. — The North Carolina Tar Heels came into Saturday's hyped rematch with rival Duke sick and tired of hearing about how other teams are serious contenders for the national championship but not themselves.
They felt like they were flying too far under the radar and decided this was the time to exorcise a demon from 24 days earlier and to change the national perception of their NCAA worthiness.
UNC should be regarded as one of the top two or three teams in contention for the national championship, but only if the No. 6 Tar Heels can continue harboring the angst that fueled them to their 88-70 rout of the No. 3 Blue Devils at Cameron Indoor Stadium.
This was an angry team in Carolina Blue. There was nothing pastel about their performance. This was hoops hostility at the highest level.
"When you go out and you play as hard as you can for 40 minutes and lose to Duke that's devastating," said UNC sophomore Harrison Barnes. "So coming into here with as much pressure as a national championship because it's Carolina and Duke, we just came out focused and with a lot of aggression."
And it's that inner fire that drove them coming into this historic sweat box and winning the ACC's regular season title. The Tar Heels (27-4, 14-2) blew a 10-point lead over the Devils with 2:09 left in Chapel Hill and lost on freshman Austin Rivers' 3-pointer at the buzzer. UNC allowed 14 3s that night, and since then, a day hasn't gone by without the team kicking itself for letting that one get away.
So the solution was to stroll into Cameron and simply blow out their despised rivals. Don't give them any wiggle room. But UNC had to make some changes from the first game, as a desire for redemption alone wasn't going to cut it.
UNC defended like mad in the first half, forcing Duke to miss 15 consecutive shots from the floor and building a 48-24 halftime lead. The margin reached 26 points early in the second half, and while Duke cut it to 11 at 75-64, Carolina smacked the Devils into place one more time and pulled away.
The key defensively was UNC's big men hedged out further and longer than in the first game, thus bottling up Duke's guards and allowing precious few open perimeter looks. That was the primary focus coming in.
"That's the thing that really hurt us in the last game," said UNC forward John Henson. "And (we) made an emphasis, and myself personally, to stop Seth and Austin coming off screens and helping our guards out."
This so-called "soft" team from December and January was anything but. This group that the masses thought couldn't stay focused for 40 minutes gave a lesson in combining attention to detail and passion. And this club that too many observers that really haven't paid much attention but suggested can't play defense took Duke out of everything it wants to do.
And this squad accused of lacking mental toughness turned one on a program known for it. Carolina got into the Blue Devils' heads early and remained there.
"We did a good job of punching them in the face early," Barnes said. "We never really let up."
This performance by North Carolina was certainly about redeeming itself from the loss to Duke the first time around, but it was also about channeling their hurt, embarrassment and anger over the 33-point demolition at Florida State, the ugly loss in November at UNLV and the one-point defeat at the buzzer at Kentucky in early December.
In addition, the Heels lost their best shooter for the season late last summer and their starting two guard in January. Combined that with the nature of those four defeats and all it's done is bring these guys together in a manner that simply wasn't so three months ago.
"It's been brewing for a while," Henson said. "People have been overlooking us, which is always pretty good, and today we proved that we're a pretty good team."
Yes, they most certainly were.