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Dirty does it: Duke cuts off passing lanes to disrupt UNC

Though just as memorable as the other games, the latest chapter in the storied Duke-North Carolina rivalry was not its prettiest.

Though just as memorable as the other games, the latest chapter in the storied Duke-North Carolina rivalry was not its prettiest.

Duke didn’t win its 15th game in 17 tries against UNC because of the superior athleticism, depth or shooting characteristic of other Blue Devil teams. Wednesday night’s victory was devoid of the intrepid individual performances that made other Duke victories so memorable.

The Blue Devils offset the Tar Heels’ depth and talent advantages with the same disruptive man-to-man defense Duke has always played under Coach K. Aggressiveness in the passing lanes allowed them to control a North Carolina team that has been whizzing past opponents.

“Their defense was stronger than our offense,” UNC head coach Roy Williams said. “For us to have 23 turnovers and not in a running game—we can’t do that.

“I think they made bigger plays than we made.”

Duke gummed up North Carolina’s fast break and forced the Tar Heels into a slower, more controlled half-court game that favored the undermanned Blue Devils. The pressure was there from the outset—Duke caused turnovers on North Carolina’s first three possessions to build an early 10-2 lead.

From that point, Duke allowed its pressure defense to do the rest of the work. The backcourt did everything it needed to limit Raymond Felton to just three assists. The point guard had trouble setting up his team’s offense and fumbled away eight of the Tar Heels’ 23 turnovers. Felton’s difficulties extended to teammates Rashad McCants and Jawad Williams, who shot a combined 4-for-19 from the floor.

The Blue Devils contested every rebound, every loose ball and every Tar Heel shot. Although Duke was never able to pull away from the deeper and more explosive Tar Heels—the Blue Devils’ greatest second-half advantage was just nine points—Duke always had a counter for every Tar Heel punch.

And each jab set up one of Duke’s finest moments. The Blue Devils could never shirk the Tar Heels, but they always kept UNC at arm’s length. The visitors either pulled to within one point or tied Duke five times in the second half, only to see a Blue Devil counter with a big basket or one of many key steals.

Duke had no single go-to guy on the floor as four Blue Devils hit double figures. With 15:14 remaining, McCants hit a three to knot the game at 38. But just seconds later, J.J. Redick drilled a trey to re-establish Duke’s advantage. A Shavlik Randolph steal on the ensuing possession led to a DeMarcus Nelson three-pointer, extending the Blue Devils’ lead back to six points.

And credit Duke’s mental resiliency for the win. Beset by depth issues all season long, the Blue Devils have fought their way to an 18-2 record with several close wins over teams like Clemson, Princeton, Temple and Miami. On the other hand, the Tar Heels, who entered Wednesday’s game ranked first in the nation in scoring offense and second in scoring margin, have not faced such adversity.

“We’ve had a lot of tough games, and the thing we’ve done all year is just find ways to win,” Redick said. “I don’t know if that helped us tonight, but it certainly helped that we had that experience.”

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