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February 9, 2011

Cameron Collapse

DURHAM, N.C. - North Carolina couldn't stop Duke's shooters forever.

For a half, the No. 20 Tar Heels seemingly did everything right: they held down the Blue Devils' best scorers; they crashed the boards; they got easy baskets inside.

But eventually the fifth-ranked Blue Devils' shooters got hot, led by a career-high 34 points from Nolan Smith, and overcame a 14-point halftime deficit to beat the Tar Heels 79-73.

"This hurts a lot," said UNC forward John Henson, who had 14 points and 12 rebounds. "This is one of the worst ways to lose."

That's saying something considering that last season, the Tar Heels (17-6, 7-2 in the ACC) got routed here at Cameron Indoor Stadium by 32 points.

In that game, the Blue Devils (22-2, 9-1) hit the accelerator early to blow Carolina out of the building.

This time around, the Tar Heels clamped down for the first 20 minutes and made sure it didn't happen again.

But a Blue Devils run of some kind - especially at home, where they have now won an NCAA-best 33 straight games - was inevitable.

It started with an 8-0 burst to begin the second half.

That, however, was only the beginning.

Smith and Seth Curry - who scored 22 points, the most of his Duke career - got scorching hot and combined to score 24 straight points for the Blue Devils.

By the time that stretch was over - finished off with nine straight from Curry - the Tar Heels formerly double-digit lead had vanished and the game was tied at 54.

Thirty seconds later, the Blue Devils took the lead when Ryan Kelly buried a 3-pointer.

It was their first lead of the game, and they wouldn't relinquish it the rest of the way.

"It was frustrating them coming out in the second half and then hitting all those jump shots," said UNC guard Dexter Strickland, who guarded Smith until foul trouble limited his minutes.

Smith, the front-runner for ACC Player of the Year, shot 8 for 11 in the second half, while Curry was 6 for 8.

That more than made up for the 3-for-17 showing by Kyle Singler, who played more or less to a stalemate with UNC freshman Harrison Barnes.

Just as problematic as Duke's hot shooting, though, was Carolina's inability to duplicate the successes it had in the first half.

First on that list, obviously, was how they held Smith and Singler to a combined 8 for 22 in the opening 20 minutes.

But the Tar Heels were also dominating the backboards in the first, gaining a nine-rebound edge cleaning up the shots Duke missed on the way to shooting 33 percent in the period.

Tyler Zeller had nine of his career-high 13 rebounds in the first half, but Duke was the team that held the edge on the glass in the second half.

The Tar Heels got their early offense just where they wanted it, too: on the break and in the lane. In the first half, UNC scored 28 of their 43 points in the paint.

But Duke's defense tightened, and the easy passes - like a couple of 40-foot ropes from Kendall Marshall to Zeller - disappeared.

Marshall didn't struggle taking care of the ball. He had just one turnover in the game.

But the Blue Devils made him more of a shooter than a passer - the freshman point guard was 3 for 11 from the field - and dared any Tar Heel not named Zeller or Henson to beat them from outside.

As a result, the Tar Heels' shooting percentage dipped by almost 10 points in the second half.

"If we have a couple of those fall in, it's a different ball game," Henson said.

It was a different game from last year, at least. This time, it was Duke that was on its heels in the first half.

"They were as good a team as we've played, no doubt about it," Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. "I mean, they're really good. We were just a little bit better in the second half."

But the Tar Heels knew this game - and first place in the ACC - could have been theirs. In some ways, that was worse than getting blown out.

"Last year was all-around embarrassing," Zeller said. "But I think it hurts more this year because we had opportunities and we should have won."


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