The ending was exactly right: Danny Meagher, the man who had to live almost a year remembering he missed a foul shot in this building, held the ball as time ran out and then joyously threw it to the rafters of Carmichael Auditorium.
For Meagher and No. 2 Duke, today's 93-77 victory over sixth-ranked North Carolina represented so many things it is difficult to list them all. Within the context of this season, it came at the end of a week in which the team had lost two overtime games and gone from unbeaten to struggling to stay in the Atlantic Coast Conference race.
For this team and its coach, Mike Krzyzewski, it was a victory that would have been achieved here last year, if Meagher had been able to make a foul shot with nine seconds left and the Blue Devils leading by two points.
For the school, it represented the end of an 18-year drought, a period in which Duke found ways to lose here that even North Carolina Coach Dean Smith could not have dreamed up. The year Carmichael opened -- 1966 -- Duke won here. The next victory came the year the building closes -- 1985. In between, five coaches lost 18 games.
"What's important is the way our kids bounced back from the losses to Maryland and Wake Forest," Krzyzewski said, playing down the historic significance of the victory. "I'm proud of the way the kids came back today, especially Johnny Dawkins."
When last seen in Duke's overtime loss to Wake Thursday, Dawkins was having perhaps the worst night of his career, against the Deacons' elfin guard, 5-foot-3 Tyrone Bogues. Today, Dawkins had 34 points, eight rebounds, four steals and four assists.
He received ample help from Mark Alarie, who had 19 points; the rejuvenated Jay Bilas, who had 17 points and 11 rebounds, and Meagher, who had 10 rebounds as the Blue Devils (13-2, 3-2 in the ACC) outrebounded the much-taller Tar Heels, 42-30.
"We just never put any pressure on their big men in the second half," said North Carolina's Steve Hale. "We couldn't get the ball inside and get them in foul trouble, so they just played free and easy. They played really good defense."
Krzyzewski must get some credit for that. During the 39-39 first half, North Carolina (13-3, 4-1) consistently got the ball inside to 6-11 Brad Daugherty and 6-11 Warren Martin. Each would catch the ball five feet from the basket, turn and shoot easily over the smaller Blue Devils. By halftime, Daugherty had 12 of his 18 points and Martin had eight of his 16 points and eight of his 10 rebounds.
In the second half, Duke made two adjustments: Instead of chasing the big men through the lane, they let them go through and switched. In other words, if Daugherty went from the left side to the right, Alarie didn't follow him, he simply passed him off to Bilas.
"Once they started playing like that it was much tougher," Daugherty said. "It just seemed like wherever we went, they were waiting."
The other adjustment came as North Carolina was pushing the ball up court. Rather than concede the "early post" -- let the big men get into position around the lane quickly -- Duke's big men denied them that spot. "We ended up taking a lot of quick shots because of that," North Carolina's Buzz Peterson said. "Duke makes it harder to get into your offense than any team we play against. They just deny, deny, deny."
It was exactly that -- denying the entry pass -- that gave the Blue Devils control of this game. They were clinging to a 51-49 lead with 15 minutes to play and the 10,000 fans in Carmichael raising their usual din, when suddenly, North Carolina's offense stopped functioning.
During a period of 10:37, the Tar Heels scored four points. They made two of 10 shots during that stretch and turned the ball over nine times. "Their hands were everywhere," Peterson said with an unhappy shrug.
While North Carolina was struggling at its end, Duke was doing just enough at the other end. At 54-49, Dawkins made an inside steal and went the length of the court for a layup that made it 56-49 with 13:25 to go. Several turnovers by each side later, Dawkins scored from 20 feet to make it 58-49.
Hale (12 points) then scored twice for the Tar Heels around David Henderson's bank shot, and it was 60-53 as the 10-minute mark approached. No need for North Carolina to panic. Until . . .
At the 10-minute mark, Alarie got behind Martin, dunked and drew Martin's fourth foul. The free throw made it 63-53. North Carolina proceeded to go scoreless from Hale's jumper at 11:07 until Martin's layup with 4:30 left. By then Duke had a 68-53 lead and the building was strangely silent.
"We knew then they were going to start fouling," said Meagher. "That's the way they come back. Today, though, we made most of our foul shots."
During a period of 3:09, North Carolina committed 14 fouls attempting to come back. Duke responded by making 21 of 26 from the line. Even so, the Tar Heels scared them when Kenny Smith (14 points) stole the ball and went in for a dunk that made it 72-64 with three minutes left.
Henderson soothed nerves on Duke's bench by making two from the line five seconds later, and after Martin's miss, Meagher made two more to make it 76-64 with 2:46 left.
Although Smith continued to order fouls until the end -- four North Carolina players fouled out -- there was going to be no miracle today.
"We know what you have to do to win here," Dawkins said. "It's never easy, they never give up and they're always tough. When you win here, you know you've done a great job."
It was left to Meagher to put it all in perspective: "Last year, we could have won here. This year we did. What happened last year makes this year that much sweeter."