It was Steve Hale who best explained why North Carolina's 78-68 victory over Duke today meant so much to his team.
"What's easier to remember?" Hale asked. "The 18 teams who did it or the one team that didn't?"
"It" was a reference to Carolina's remarkable streak of 19 seasons without a finish below second in the Atlantic Coast Conference's regular season. The string would have ended today if fifth-ranked Duke had been able to beat the eighth-ranked Tar Heels for a second time this season. Instead, the Blue Devils had their worst shooting day in two years (33.8 percent from the field) and The Streak survived.
By winning, Carolina finished the conference season with a 9-5 record. That leaves UNC (22-7 overall) tied for first place with Georgia Tech and N.C. State. Duke finished 8-6 in the league and 21-6 in all games. The Blue Devils will play Maryland at 2 p.m. Friday in the first round of the ACC tournament.
Carolina's opponent won't be determined until Sunday, when a draw will determine seedings among the three teams tied for first.
All that was of little concern to Carolina today, though. This was a sweet victory for Coach Dean Smith not only because it kept The Streak alive but because it broke a two-game losing streak against arch rival Duke and its coach, Mike Krzyzewski.
Today, Krzyzewski was helpless because his Blue Devils, shooting 54 percent for the season, simply could not score over Carolina's zone. Most notably, second- and third-leading scorers Mark Alarie and David Henderson could not have thrown the ball into the Potomac off Key Bridge.
Alarie, a 60 percent shooter for the season, missed his first 11 shots, and Henderson, a 53 percent shooter, missed his first five. Alarie finished five for 19. Henderson, hitting his last two shots after the game had been decided, was three for 10.
Remarkably, when Alarie finally hit a jumper with 12:35 left in the game, Duke trailed by only 41-38.
"I'd like to say it was our defense that made them shoot like that, but they're too good to take credit," said Hale, who had 13 points, as did Warren Martin. "We were just lucky they had that kind of a day against us. It probably won't ever happen again."
Carolina deserves a good deal of credit for the victory, though. Center Brad Daugherty was excellent all afternoon with 23 points and 12 rebounds. Many of his points came midway in the second half when Duke, which had hung in by playing tough defense, was trying to make a run and the 8,564 packed into Cameron Indoor Stadium were extremely noisy.
Daugherty had help, though. Joe Wolf, another of Carolina's four players who are 6 feet 10 or taller, had 11 points and nine rebounds. Martin scored his points even while the Cameron crowd constantly screamed, "Warren's walking," because Martin appeared to travel on several occasions when he moved to the basket. In fact, not once in 40 minutes did the officals call traveling on anybody, a strange statistic, to say the least.
But the officials had nothing to do with the outcome.
Duke led early, 8-2, but then went into the deepest of freezes from the field. Once Carolina took the lead at 10-9, it never relinquished it. For Duke, only Johnny Dawkins (25 points) could provide any consistency offensively, although Jay Bilas, giving away three or four inches to Carolina's entire front line, tried mightily, scoring 12 points and getting 11 rebounds.
By halftime, Carolina's lead was 34-27. Duke cut it to 35-34 four minutes into the second half on a steal and dunk by Dawkins. But Hale picked up a loose ball for a key basket to make it 37-34 and Martin scored a minute later on one of those baskets where he appeared to walk to make it 39-34.
The lead grew to 53-44 on a jumper by Buzz Peterson with 8:45 to go, but Duke fought back one more time. Henderson finally hit a shot, and Alarie managed a three-point play to make it 53-49. After Wolf and Dawkins exchanged jumpers, Dawkins had a chance to cut the lead to two after a steal.
But his 12-foot jumper went around the rim and came out. A moment later, Daugherty made a three-point play to make it 58-51. Henderson then missed and Martin made two foul shots to make it 60-52 with 5:22 left.
Duke never got that close again. The Blue Devils finished the day 27 for 80 from the field as compared to Carolina's 28 for 48. The Blue Devils got 32 more shots because they forced 20 turnovers and made only five themselves. But that was little consolation to Krzyzewski.
"That was about as poor an offensive performance as we've had all year," he said. "For a team that is shooting 54 percent to not have any one player shoot over 50 percent shows a lack of intelligence from us on offense. We just put too much pressure on our defense. We may only have had five turnovers but if you count poor shots as turnovers, we had a slew of them."
Smith, naturally, played down the importance of continuing The Streak. But his players didn't. "This is sweet," Daugherty said. "To finish in a tie for first when we were picked sixth or seventh in the league feels great."
Actually, no one picked Carolina sixth or seventh. But Smith and his players have emphasized all season that people think the Tar Heels are down. They aren't.
"When we had Press Day before the season, there were about three reporters and some dog that wandered in," Hale said. "All the talk was Duke and State, Duke and State. We didn't want to emphasize The Streak that much because it creates pressure. When we lost three in a row at midseason, we were saying, 'Oh no, we can't do this, we're Carolina.' But gradually we quit worrying about that stuff and started playing again."