by February 07, 2008

By Adam Fleischer

Last night’s battle between Duke and UNC in Chapel Hill was probably the most anticipated match-up in college ball to date this season. There have been some other games which looked enticing going in, but none of this magnitude. Although UNC PG Ty Laswon was out with an injury, it looked to be about as tasty a game as a college basketball enthusiast could ask for: two extremely talented teams, two legendary coaches, the biggest rivalry in (college) sports, and plentry of NBA talent for the non NCAA inclined.

From the tip, it was clear that this was going to live up to the hype. Both teams came out looking extremely fired up and ready to go—and we all know that it wasn’t simply because each was facing another top three team in the country; this was Duke-UNC.

On the first play of the game, Greg Paulus nailed a three, writing the first page of what turned out to be the story of Duke’s night offensively. UNC’s Tyler Hansbrough also got going early, scoring four of the team’s first six points on his way to dropping 18 in the opening frame.

Although there was plenty of it, the first half wasn’t only about the offense. Both sides played tough D throughout the night, something which was exemplified in the early going when Duke’s Gerald Henderson and UNC’s Danny Green each had, put simply, ridiculous blocks. Henderson came from the weak side and elevated feet towards the heavens before sending the offering back from whence it came, while Green hustled to stop an easy fast break lay-up by pinning it off the glass.

Carolina maintained a slim lead for about the first eight minutes of the game before Duke started to take control. Down 15-18, guard Jon Scheyer hit a three for the Blue Devils to tie things up before Paulus and freshman Kyle Singler followed suit. After going up 27-20 at the end of that stretch, Duke never looked back. Undeniably and understandably missing Lawson, Carolina turned the ball over at times when they could have used key baskets to stop Duke runs. Duke went into the locker room up 42-39 behind an astounding eight first half triples.

The second half proved to be more of the same as the Blue Devils opened up with three consecutive buckets from downtown. Hansbrough and crew kept it close until the buzzer, but the game never really seemed to be in question in the second half for Duke. DeMarcus Nelson, the lone senior on the team and its leading scorer, picked up his fourth personal with 16 minutes to go, which could have been costly for a relatively inexperienced Duke squad. However, Singler, Paulus, and Scheyer picked up the slack and helped to secure and 89-78 victory.

Had Ty Lawson been able to play, who knows what would have happened. It definitely looked like UNC was hurting, at times, with respect to ball handling duties and moving the rock without turning it over. The team finished with 20 turnovers, including six by Lawson’s replacement in the starting lineup, Quentin Thomas. Three other key things hurt the Tar Heels, none of which I would have predicted going in. Despite being a very good rebounding team and winning the rebounding battle for the game (44-37), UNC couldn’t clean the glass when it mattered, as Scheyer and Henderson both had big time offensive rebounds with less than five minutes to go. Then there’s the free throw shooting. Typically shooting a high percentage from the charity stripe, Carolina only hit 19 of their 30 attempts, with five of those misses coming from Psycho T, who shoots over eighty percent on the year. Guards Wayne Ellington and Danny Green, who average a combined 28 points per game on the year, put up only 11 (8 and 3, respectively) on just 4 of 24 shooting.

Looking at Duke’s performance last night, I was impressed by a number of individuals as well as the team on the whole. They played great team defense, seemed to have good chemistry, made their free throws down the stretch (13-18 in the final 3:35), and had a decent amount of depth, especially in comparison to last season. Hansbrough never really had the opportunity to make moves in the low post because Duke would send a double team the instant he touched the ball. He got most of his points doing the work getting position without the ball so that he could immediately drop step upon receiving an entry pass or when the perimeter players drove and drew some attention before dishing it to him. Even though he finished with 28 and 18, I thought they did a relatively good job on him considering what an absolute beast he is and Duke’s lack of big men. Paulus’ 6 of 8 shooting from behind the arc was pretty insane, while the same adjective could be used for Henderson’s hustle and athleticism. Singler also came up big. He finished with a double double (14 and 10) and showed that he can defend, pass, stroke it from deep, and is an unselfish player. Props to him for playing so well in his first ever Duke-UNC game—on the road nonetheless.

Both these teams showed signs of being able to do something special this season and will be two of the toughest outs in March.

Lucky for us, there’s a rematch in about a month on March 8. Hopefully both teams will be full strength. Personally, I can’t wait.

Photo courtesy of Getty Images