They executed a quality game plan on both ends of the floor, nailed 47.6 percent of their 3-pointers, got a 25-point effort from freshman point guard Raymond Felton and an equally impressive 19-point, seven-rebound performance from vastly improving freshman forward David Noel. But they hit just 10 of 19 free throws, and went into another seemingly patented offensive funk, and Duke pulled away late for an 83-74 victory before a raucous crowd of 9,314.
"I'm extremely proud of our guys and their effort," UNC coach Matt Doherty said. "I don't think many people thought we could come in here and be in position to win a basketball game against a talented Duke team. So I am really proud of our guys but yet I am disappointed we lost."
And in a game in which both programs have so much in common, it was the main differences between the two that gave the Blue Devils the edge, as Duke's veterans were just a bit better than Carolina's cubs.
With the score knotted at 61 with 7:31 remaining, the Blue Devils (15-3, 5-3 Atlantic Coast Conference) went to their most experienced players to secure the victory.
Senior Dahntay Jones sank a pair of free throws to put Duke up 63-61. He then nailed a 3-pointer, had an alley-oop slam, and junior Chris Duhon followed with a 3 of his own and just like that Duke led 71-65 with 3:43 left in the game.
"They did a good job of stepping up and hitting shots when their team needed baskets," sophomore forward Jawad Williams said about Jones and Duhon. "They are experienced guys and they played like it tonight."
Duke then kept the Heels (11-10, 2-6) at bay despite the efforts of Felton, who also had four assists and played with tremendous poise in what was easily the most difficult environment he has played in.
"The atmosphere here is crazy," Felton said. "This is what I expected, it's what I have heard about and I think I handled it well. I mainly blocked the crowd out and focused on the game."
Even in defeat, however, Carolina can take some positives from the game.
They outshot Duke from the floor (44.3% to 43.8%) – a true rarity for this UNC bunch, scored 18 points off of Duke's 16 turnovers, and only allowed the Devils nine points on fast breaks.
The Tar Heels also got a third consecutive great performance from its leader, Williams, who finished with 19 points and a crucial eight rebounds.
"He's been great," Noel said about Williams. "Jawad knew he had to step up and be a leader, and he's been taking the team under his wing and protecting everybody and getting everybody going. He's been awesome."
And of course there was the play of Felton, who has averaged 26.5 points in UNC's biggest road games at N.C. State and tonight, and Noel, who has exploded in the last two games after taking over the starting small forward position from Rashad McCants. He wouldn't say he tried to carry the Heels, but in many respects he did, and it darn near worked.
"I don't necessarily put the team on my shoulders but I just try to be the leader on the court and make things happen," Felton said. "If it's me pulling up for a shot, or me driving to the basket, or me penetrating and kicking to one of my teammates, whatever it is I'll do to help the team."
Noel, who has averaged 16.5 points and 7.5 rebounds in the last two games, was pleased with his own effort.
"I didn't surprise myself," Noel said when asked if he knew he could play as well as he has the last two games. "I knew I had it in me, and my coaches have given me the chance because they believed in me and had confidence in me. Coach Doherty told me to just relax and that's what I am doing."
Yet even with the many positives UNC can take from this performance, two old problems surfaced once again.
Carolina was a paltry 10-19 from the free throw line with Jackie Manuel a brick-laying 0-5. And what would be a UNC basketball game without a lengthy drought? There is no consistency when the Heels will go into the tank offensively, but a certain is they most likely will.
Carolina led 58-53 with 11:22 left to play, but 6:22 later Duke's 13-3 run gave them a 66-61 advantage.
"It does happen a lot," Williams said about the funks. "I think we got some good looks, but they just didn't fall."
Whatever the reason, it happened, and did so while Duke took control of the game.
The Blue Devils were led by Jones' 23 points while Duhon added 12, freshman guard J.J. Redick had 17 and sophomore wing Daniel Ewing, who fouled out with 6:27 left to play, finished with 11 points.
The other four Carolina players that saw action combined for 11 points, with McCants, the team's leading scorer, limited to a season-low two points in 10 minutes of action. Unlike in the Wake Forest game, McCants' minute total had more to do with a back problem that kept him on the bench than the effort and attitude concerns of Sunday night.
The Tar Heels led at the half 43-38 because they shot 61.5% from the floor, including a blistering 66.7% (6-9) from beyond the arc. The half was highlighted by a Noel slam over Duke's 6-foot-11 senior center Casey Sanders on a fast break.
But Duke went into the locker with a little momentum after Redick nailed a long 3-pointer right before time expired.
Senior writer Andrew Jones is in his seventh year with Inside Carolina. He also covers the ACC for the Wilmington Star-News/Morning Star and can be reached via e-mail at: AndrewJones@AM630.net.