Delayed eight days and denied the unique atmosphere of an all-student crowd last week, the North Carolina fans seemed determined to make up for lost time.
Perhaps all the talk of Duke and Syracuse played a role as well, because it’s hard to imagine the Smith Center being any more frenzied last Wednesday than it was Thursday, with the lower bowl on its feet for much of the game, saving the best for last.
When Marcus Paige slashed through traffic in the lane to put the Tar Heels up four points with 90 seconds to play, putting the final stamp on a comeback from an 11-point second-half deficit on the way to a 74-66 win, the Smith Center may never have been louder.
“I played in Cameron last year when they went on their run,” Paige said. “Played at Michigan State. But that crowd tonight was the most crazy. I might be a little biased, honestly. When we took the lead when the game was in the 60s, it was unbelievable.”
North Carolina, once left for dead in the ACC, is now very much alive. Duke’s dreams of an ACC title are all but dashed. This rivalry, despite reports to the contrary, is thriving.
If the fans felt they had something to prove, the teams clearly felt the same way. Thursday’s game may have lacked in style at times, but it provided an excess of drama, a decibel level capable of doing the kind of long-term damage that puts otolaryngologists’ kids through college and unexpected starring roles for players like Leslie McDonald and Marshall Plumlee and Desmond Hubert.
The Tar Heels nipped away at Duke’s lead throughout the second half, always closing, the Blue Devils losing momentum with tired legs and inexperienced minds. Duke’s offense went cold in the second half, going almost nine minutes without a field goal, North Carolina slowly chipped away at the lead.
A scrambling North Carolina possession ended with a wide-open McAdoo under the basket, the score tied at 60 with 4:20 to play, a Duke timeout and complete pandemonium in a building that isn’t exactly known for it.
“Ballistic,” James Michael McAdoo said. “It was pretty loud, man.”
To that point, Duke held the edge. From then on, perhaps buoyed by the crowd, it was all Carolina.
“We just didn’t respond to it,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “The crowd, the team, the intensity. We couldn’t match it. We just couldn’t match it. That’s why they won.”
A McDonald jumper put the Tar Heels into the lead for the first time in the second half, 62-60 with 3:51 to play. Paige, on the next possession, slashed through the lane to seal the deal.
North Carolina had a lot to do with Duke’s struggles, switching from man to zone with excellent timing and surprising effectiveness. Any night Duke goes 5-for-22 from 3-point range, the Blue Devils are vulnerable, and North Carolina took advantage.
Yet another top-10 team toppled, although the Tar Heels won’t have surprised anyone with this one. North Carolina and Duke are now virtually tied in the ACC standings, the Tar Heels at 9-4, the Blue Devils at 10-4 with only 48 hours to prepare for Syracuse, a game that has lost a bit of its sizzle with both teams losing this week.
This game had sizzle to spare. As North Carolina coach Roy Williams sat on the bench before the game, soaking in the noise, he had only one negative thought: “I hope we don’t let them down.” Far from it: The students swarmed the floor in an atypical but entirely justified storming of the court, entirely and thoroughly satisfied.