Go ahead, be daring and book your flight to Dallas with Duke. Bring your face paint and pitchfork, and don't forget the horns for your head, because the Blue Devils are No. 1 entering the postseason, and even North Carolina says so after today.
It was plain and simple madness here at Cameron Indoor Stadium, where a corduroy crowd of 8,564 watched open-mouthed and screaming all the way as top-ranked Duke defeated the third-ranked Tar Heels, 82-74, to end its regular season first in the country and first in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
One more first: it was the first time the Blue Devils (29-2 overall, 12-2 in the ACC) finished alone atop the ACC standings since 1966.
In the process, the Blue Devils ended two decades of North Carolina domination. They handed the once top-ranked Tar Heels (26-4, 10-4) their third loss in four games to drop them to third place in the ACC. The Tar Heels had finished either first or second in the conference for the last 19 years, but now they are third and will meet Maryland in the first round of the ACC tournament Friday in Greensboro, N.C.
"It's hard to say anyone is the best in the country at this point, but they're playing the most consistently and they deserve the ranking," said North Carolina center Brad Daugherty.
North Carolina trailed, 37-34, at halftime, came as close as one early in the second half, then cut a seven-point lead to two with 6:51 remaining. But the Tar Heels never led in the second half and could not overcome the swell of emotion here, where so much seemed at stake.
Among other things, it was the final home appearance for five seniors who are the backbone of this Duke team. Four have been starters since their freshman year, when they were 11-17: David Henderson, Mark Alarie, Jay Bilas and Johnny Dawkins. The fifth senior was reserve Weldon Williams.
Duke was led by Henderson, who had a game-high 27 points and keyed the Blue Devils' only real run, which came just as they found themselves in foul trouble and North Carolina was making its last effort. But they outscored the Tar Heels by 14-4 in less than six minutes to take their biggest margin, 78-66, with 56 seconds to go.
Dawkins added 21 points, in the process becoming Duke's all-time leading scorer with 2,343 points, breaking Mike Gminski's record of 2,323. Alarie added 16 points and four steals, followed by guard Tommy Amaker with 14, eight assists and three steals.
"The key to the game was that our senior class was able to handle the emotion of the day," said Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski. "They handled things much better than I did. I just tried not to be a buffoon or do crazy things. I was so low-key they probably thought we were 11-17 again."
The notorious fans knew better. They were in full voice, drenched in body paint and beverages of every description. But they were upstaged by NBC sportscaster Al McGuire, who has a long running feud with the hecklers. He made a pregame appearance at courtside bearing a pith helmet, whip and chair, prepared to beat them back.
He had better luck than North Carolina. In a game in which four players were in double figures for both teams and baskets were traded as fast as insults, the Tar Heels seemed to run out of offense. They scored just six points over the last 6:51.
Daugherty led the Tar Heels with 24 points and 16 rebounds. Freshman guard Jeff Lebo had 18 points and forwards Joe Wolf and Curtis Hunter added 12 and 10.
According to the shooting and rebounding statistics, the game should have belonged to North Carolina, which shot 71 percent in the first half and 64 percent for the game and outrebounded the Blue Devils by a shocking 38-22. But the Tar Heels turned the ball over an equally shocking 22 times, and that was the most telling statistic.
The turnovers were largely a result of the absence of guard-forward Steve Hale, out with a punctured lung. Reserve center Warren Martin also sat out again, with a sprained foot. But it is debatable whether they would have prevented a loss if they had played today.
"They're a great team, one of the greatest I've ever seen in college basketball," North Carolina Coach Dean Smith said. "Even with Warren and Steve back, and we expect them back for the start of the tournament, Duke is still the No. 1 team."
North Carolina made its move with 11:01 remaining, trailing by 57-50. The Tar Heels outscored Duke, 8-3, in a little over three minutes, Daugherty scoring six in a row. His hook made it 60-58 with 8:11 left. He made it eight straight for the Tar Heels with a layup after Dawkins hit a 17-footer.
They traded baskets from there until 6:51 remained, when Lebo made a jumper to keep the Tar Heels within two, 64-62. Suddenly Duke looked as if it might be in danger, because the entire front court was in foul trouble. Bilas picked up his fifth foul with 6:13 remaining and by then Alarie had his fourth and freshman center Danny Ferry his third.
But that's when Duke began its 14-4 run. Henderson had 11 of the points, including the first seven straight, and Carolina's turnovers began to tell. Daugherty did not help in that stretch, twice missing the front end of one-and-one situations, at 66-62 and at 71-66. For Duke, Amaker made one steal, Alarie two, and the run ended with a free throw by Amaker to make it 78-66 and effectively end it. North Carolina came no closer than eight the rest of the way.
The Tar Heels' poor regular-season finish cost them the No. 1 ranking and left them slumming as the third seed after 19 years of top two finishes. Maryland also is a dangerous tournament opponent for the Tar Heels; the Terrapins upset them, 77-72, Feb. 20.
"Well, now we can say we've finished third or better for 20 years," Smith said.