CHAPEL HILL - In a game highlighted by crowd-silencing 3-pointers and surprising production in the post, the Blue Devils' definitive win was truly a result of strong defense.
Just look at the statistics.
Duke stole the ball 11 times and swatted six shots on its way to keeping just about every Tar Heel not named Tyler Hansbrough in check. And even though Greg Paulus' six treys and Kyle Singler's double-double deserve a lot of attention, Lance Thomas' inspired defensive effort and fearless play in the paint was the biggest difference in the game.
"I was very poised tonight," Thomas said. "I feel like it was my most emotional game and the most confidence I've put forth. I feel like it's the biggest contribution I've actually added to the team."
His coach couldn't agree more.
After the game, head coach Mike Kryzezwski proudly called it Thomas' best game.
Although many believed the game would be decided by the Blue Devils' backcourt and North Carolina's frontcourt, Thomas seemed to surprise even the Tar Heels with his ability to score down low. Thanks to some nifty passes from Paulus and DeMarcus Nelson, who combined for eight of the team's 16 assists, Thomas was consistently able to secure solid position in the paint en route to a season-high 10 points.
But perhaps more crucial than the actual baskets themselves were their timing. During a pivotal stretch in the game midway through the second half, the score was stuck at 58-51 and threatening to go either way. Thomas broke a 3:58 scoring drought by backing down Hansbrough for two hard-fought points, sparking Duke back to life.
"I had some finishes with [Hansbrough] around the basket, and Kyle had some finishes with him around the basket, too," Thomas said. "We were also just relentless on the boards, and we didn't back down."
Later in the second half, with Duke leading 66-61, Thomas epitomized the team's tenacious defense in one of the game's most important plays when he blocked Danny Green from behind on what seemed to be a wide-open dunk. The Carolina faithful had already risen to their feet and started cheering, but when the dust settled, the Dean Dome was silent and the Tar Heels' momentum was once again lost.
The defensive stop led to a Gerald Henderson lay-up in transition, which was just another example of a season-long trend Duke continued to emphasize throughout this game: defensive stops begetting offensive success.
"That's how we're going to win games," Henderson said. "We know that coming into every game, our defense is going to make plays for us on offense. We're going to feed off our defense.... That's how we need to play to win."
Less than a minute later, a block by Henderson turned into a three by Singler, and the Blue Devils had successfully thwarted another of North Carolina's many comeback bids. Before the Tar Heel fans could even catch their breath, UNC's five-point deficit had ballooned to nine, 71-62.
And that was the story of the second half-North Carolina kept knocking, but Duke kept turning them away.
"I think the experience of having been in those situations in the conference, really in over half of our games we have been losing or just about to lose," Krzyzewski said. "It is tough to simulate those types of situations and you have to experience them. So far this year we have experienced them in a positive way and again you're experiencing them today. Our team turned it into something positive, which is good toughness on our part."
North Carolina head coach Roy Williams could not have put it better when he said these Blue Devils have all the necessary ingredients. From its high-flying athleticism to its smart decision-making to its shutdown defense, Duke played its most complete game of the season when it needed to most.
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