Look at December 18, 2010. With three losses already, North Carolina dropped a heartbreaker to Texas when Cory Joseph clanked in a last-second jumper. Freshman Harrison Barnes wasn’t quite living up to the hype. A repeat of the 2009-2010 season seemed imminent.
Fast forward to March 5, 2011. The Tar Heels had already won 16 of their last 18 games, losing only to Georgia Tech and, of course, Duke. Barnes had, in a single word, exploded. Kendall Marshall looked like he was born to play point guard. Everything was finally clicking.
And they came back to beat Duke with a vengeance.
The No. 13 Tar Heels (24-6, 14-2 ACC) defeated No. 4 Duke (27-4, 13-3 ACC) handily, 81-67. The win clinched the regular ACC season title and put the cherry on top of a season that keeps getting sweeter for coach Roy Williams’ club.
UNC held Duke to 36 percent shooting on the night, making sure the typical Duke beyond-the-arc threat simply wouldn’t be one. The Devils shot just 22 percent from the three-point line, and every single shot came from sophomore Seth Curry.
Three reasons why the game was won
- Defensive matchups. Barnes was making it hard for Singler, and McDonald was doing the same thing to Smith. The Tar Heels played their season-defining defense like never before, repeatedly frustrating Duke from every part of the court.
- Shots in the paint. The Tar Heels have struggled game in and game out with three-point shooting. By Saturday, they’d figured out a solution: Don’t do it. UNC knocked down four of nine threes and spent the rest of the time driving in. Forty-four of UNC’s points were in the paint.
- Leslie McDonald. He’s known as the Tar Heels’ three-point specialist, but during Saturday’s game, he became a little more versatile. His nine points and five rebounds combined with sharp defense on Nolan Smith were a large part of the Heels’ big first half.
Kendall Marshall. When UNC beat Virginia Tech 64-61 in January, Marshall let reporters in on one of his mottos: “Big-time players step up and make big-time plays in big-time games.”
With Saturday’s game, the freshman guard reached gigantic-time player status. Fifteen points, 11 assists, two rebounds — he was literally doing it all.
John Henson. The Tar Heels wouldn’t be the Tar Heels without the sophomore big. He only blocked one shot against Duke, but his 10 points and 12 rebounds made up for it. Coach Mike Krzyzewski said it himself: “You’re not going to score on them inside.”
Seth Curry. Other than senior Nolan Smith, Curry was the only Duke player worth mentioning. He dropped 20 points, and other than two free throws, he shot solely beyond the arc. But when Curry and Smith are doing the brunt of the work, scoring 50 of Duke’s 67 points, it’s not enough to win.
Roy Williams, UNC head coach, on his short-handed club, tough times and the ACC tournament
“We got two freshmen, two sophomores and a junior who’s never played a full season. We’re down to eight scholarship guys. But those eight scholarship guys, they have those big-time hearts.”
“The last ten months hadn’t been very easy a lot of times. But that crowd in that locker room has been fantastic. As a coach, where you get your strength is your relationship with the players. And as a coach, you get your strength from how they allow you to coach them. And this group has just been phenomenal to work with.”
“Guys, come on. I’m going to enjoy the regular-season championship. Everybody gets all upset when ol’ Roy says it’s the biggest frickin’ cocktail party — that’s what it is! Take it and do whatever the crap you want to with it. I’ll go play. And you know what? We’re going to try to win the frickin’ thing.”
“First thing was don’t get trampled. Second thing was just enjoy the moment. Embrace it and soak it all in.”
“I had a theory that, you know, just keep working and everything will fall into place, and it happened today. We won ACCs.”
Kendall Marshall on hard first-half play and his leadership role
“We just got things going. I think the main thing was we were getting stops. When you get transition buckets, it makes your offense so much more fluid. It hurts the other team’s confidence, I think. We’re a dangerous team when we get out on a break, so that’s what we tried to do.”
“I’ve tried to take the reins on this team and be a leader out there. Not just with my play, but also vocally. I think that’s what we were missing a little bit earlier in the year. And everybody’s bought into it — not just me, but everybody’s bought into playing hard and just wanting to win.”
John Henson on Kendall Marshall
“He’s perfect for this system because we have a lot of weapons. He goes to Z down low to score; me, I can flash, and he hits me when I need to be hit. And Harrison, he can kind of give it to him and let him go … he caters to these weapons.”
Pressley Baird, a senior from Mebane, N.C., is an assistant editor with the Reese Felts Digital News Project.
Andrew Dye, a senior from Cary, N.C., is a multimedia journalist with the Reese Felts Digital News Project.