CHAPEL HILL -- Though the fans in the Dean E. Smith Center erupted in cheers of "Thank you, Seniors!" after North Carolina's 79-71 victory Sunday, it was the Tar Heel junior class that ultimately decided the contest.
Dominant performances from 6-foot-8 post force Deon Thompson, swing man Wayne Ellington and explosive guard Ty Lawson gave the No. 7 Blue Devils fits, especially in the second half, as the three players combined for 43 of North Carolina's 79 points on the night.
"I've always tried to put pressure on the underclassmen to make sure the seniors go out the right way...to feel good about their last game at home," North Carolina head coach Roy Williams said.
And the Tar Heels' juniors responded to their coach's challenge-and then some.
Thompson and Lawson each made three-point plays in the second half's closing minutes, both of which Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski cited as the "winning exchanges" that gave North Carolina the final upper hand.
With 4:46 left in the second half, Thompson took a feed from Lawson and muscled it through the lane, pushing past three Duke defenders, finishing the basket, drawing the foul and converting on the and-one to expand North Carolina's lead to five, 68-63.
On the very next play, Lawson grabbed a long defensive rebound off a missed Kyle Singler three-point attempt and hit a flashing Ellington on the break. Ellington converted an easy layup to bring the Tar Heel lead to seven and the crowd to its feet.
And with just more than a minute left to go, Lawson exploited a mismatched Jon Scheyer, drove it to the bucket and drew the foul to give the Tar Heels an insurmountable seven-point lead.
"Our kids can make plays and their kids can make plays," Krzyzewski said. "And their kids made them."
Indeed, North Carolina made their shots at a blistering rate, going 52.8 percent for the game with much of its success came from the team's 15-for-28 effort inside the paint.
The power of the Tar Heel big men-including 14 points from Thompson and a team-high 17 from Hansbrough on his Senior Day-was the other significant factor that kept the game out of reach for
Duke, as the Blue Devils were unable to regain control of the game after the 19-minute mark in the closing period.
"In the second half, it got close a couple times, and we looked to Tyler on the blocks twice-he made the turnaround and the jump hook," Williams said. "We've got strength inside and out, and I like that balance."
"They're bigger. And they rebound well," Krzyzewski said of Duke's archrivals, who bested his squad on the glass, 37-22.
Singler, who scored 12 of his 23 points from beyond the arc, echoed his coach's sentiments, as if at a loss for answers to the Tar Heels' interior dominance.
Between Hansbrough, Thompson and freshman Ed Davis, the Tar Heel frontcourt posted 35 points, 17 rebounds and three blocks.
"They're good players," Singler said. "They're big, physical. They're able to control the paint. They definitely changed the dynamic of the game when they're on the floor."
After the game in front of a packed media room, the Tar Heel coach said he wouldn't be surprised if he saw Duke again sometime in the near future, either in the ACC Tournament or the NCAAs.
Unfortunately for the Blue Devils, North Carolina isn't shrinking and the balance Williams spoke so highly of-between outside and inside players and veteran seniors and upperclassmen-isn't likely to fade anytime soon.
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