Before packing their bags and heading for the national championship tournament, North Carolina and Duke met tonight to settle more urgent matters: the championships of North Carolina and the Atlantic Coast Conference basketball tournament.
Carolina forward Mike O'Koren, a firstteam All-America but a second-team all-conference selection, scored his team's last 10 points in the final 1:15 to lead the Tar Heels to a 71-63 victory.
"With Mike playing the way he did," said Carolina center Rich Yonakor, "we don't care if he's second-team, third-team or fourthteam ACC. We're going places."
The championship of the ACC tournament gave seventh-ranked Carolina (23-5) an automatic berth in the NCAA tournament and the official conference title.
Duke was forced to play without point guard Bob Bender, who underwent an appendectomy during the game and was reported resting comfortably in a Durham hospital, where he was admitted three hours before tipoff.
Duke (22-7) shared the regular-season championship with Carolina and is assured an NCAA at-large bid. But the Blue Devils, who had beaten the Tar Heels two of three times this season, never led after the opening seconds of tonight's grudge match.
O'Koren led Carolina in scoring with 18 points, and later led Coach Dean Smith by the hand to help cut down the nets.
But it was defensive watchdog Dudley Bradley who won the Everett Case award as the tourney's most valuable player. O'Koren responded to that by tossing Bradley in the air.
Bradley riddled the depleted Duke squad with seven steals, including one that led to O'Koren's three-point play and a 71-61 lead with 12 seconds left.
Without Bender, Duke had monumental problems getting the ball inside to center Mike Gminski, its hefty cornerstone.
Gminski got one field goal in the first half and only five in the game, still finishing with a team-high 19 points.
But although Duke was able to tie the score once, at 39, in the second half, the Blue Devils could not put together a big enough flurry against the careful Carolina squad.
Carolina led only 61-58 with 1:02 left, having gone to the four corners with a 48-44 lead with 8:02 remaining.
Then O'Koren made the first of his one-and-one free throws and missed the second, but scurried to grab the bal when Al Wood slapped it toward the back court.
O'Koren was immediately fouled again and made both one-and-one shots for a 64-58 lead with 51 seconds to play.
Duke came back with a three-point play of its own that involved two players. Gminski sank the first of two free throws, Vince Taylor grabbed the rebound of the second and made two free throws after being fouled.
The Blue Devils again fouled O'Koren and he hit both shots to make it 66-61. Then Duke reserve Steve Gray was called for an offensive foul and that, essentially, assured the Tar Heel victory.
"This is really a great moment for our team," said Carolina Coach Dean Smith. "I was so impressed with the poise of our team through the tournament."
Carolina slaughtered Maryland, 102-79, Friday night in the most lopsided semifinal in the 26-year history of the tournament. A draw gave the Tar Heels a first-round bye.
"I want to congratulate Carolina. They played a very fine game," said Duke Coach Bill Foster, whose team won this tourney last year.
"We got behind early and had to play catchup the whole game. We tried to key on Al Wood and Mike O'Koren, and Bradley and Yonakor hurt us."
Yonakor, who got the nickname "Airball" for a shot he threw up during Duke's recent victory over Carolina, scored 10 points and took several outside jumpers, forcing Gminski to cut, unplugging the middle.
"I thought Dudley Bradley played the best game of his career," said Smith. "I am happy he is the MVP. Mike O'Koren played his usual great game. He had to hit the free throws near the end and did. He did so many other things.
"This was a thrilling win over a great Duke team. I think Duke and North Carolina and maybe 10 or 11 others have a chance to win it (the NCAA tournament). The win over an outstanding team like Duke makes it all the more satisfying."