DURHAM – Down four at halftime, Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski wasn't worried about stopping P.J. Hairston. He wasn't worried about Duke's turnovers, North Carolina's speed or losing for the second straight time at home to the Tar Heels.
He was worried No. 2 Duke had run out of energy.
That might have been true – or close to it – but Duke was able to stay on the right side of exhaustion and foul trouble, beating the Tar Heels, 73-68, on Wednesday at Cameron Indoor Stadium.
“A lot of times in these games you get worn out quickly because it's a nine o'clock game,” Krzyzewski said. “The emotion – you come here and we get knocked back with their quickness, and at halftime, I was just worried that we ran out of gas.
“But that is where the grit, it came out and you kind of forgot about being tired.”
In an encouraging sign for North Carolina's postseason prospects, the Tar Heels (16-8, 6-5 Atlantic Coast Conference) responded to a road environment better than they have all season.
In road games against N.C. State, Texas, Butler and Miami earlier this season, North Carolina fell behind by big margins and lost. It was the opposite against Duke. North Carolina hit four of its first six field goals and led by as many as 10 points in the first half.
The Tar Heels, who were a 10-point underdog, forced Duke (22-2, 9-2) into 11 first-half turnovers and held Duke guard Seth Curry to two points on 1-for-6 shooting in the first 20 minutes, taking a 33-29 lead into halftime.
“I was really pleased with our effort (Wednesday),” North Carolina coach Roy Williams said. “... It was by far the best we have had this year.”
North Carolina locked down Curry in the first half. Mason Plumlee had looked out of sorts, committing four turnovers and failing to establish much of a post presence in the first 20 minutes
The Tar Heels were making hustle plays.
The circumstances changed in the second half. Not completely, as neither side dominated but the Blue Devils began finding ways around a North Carolina defense that had stalled their offense.
It took some bizarre match-making on Krzyzewski's part, like using four guards and playing backup point guard Tyler Thornton at power forward for a stretch, but the Blue Devils started obtaining good shots and keeping the Tar Heels from doing the same.
“Coach said at halftime we had had one assist,” Plumlee said. “We had to get the ball moving. We aren't a one-on-one team, so we have to work together and get guys open, set screens and execute, and I thought we did a better job of that in the second half.”
Plumlee picked up his third foul 32 seconds into the second half, but with him on the bench, Duke began to find its touch from the outside. The Blue Devils hit four 3-pointers in fewer than four minutes, two of which came from Thornton.
Curry's triple in front of the Duke bench gave the Blue Devils their first lead nearly 26 minutes into the game.
When Duke began hitting 3-pointers, the course of the game had changed, and North Carolina knew it.
“We just gave them too many good looks from 3,” North Carolina point guard Marcus Paige said. “They have great shooters. All their perimeter players are great shooters. The first half, we didn't give them very many good looks. The second half, they got free a couple times and they knocked down some big shots.”
The Tar Heels hit plenty of big shots in their own right, never letting Duke establish a comfortable lead.
With Cameron Indoor on the verge of exploding with noise, North Carolina was able to keep Duke from making a big run.
Duke created a 7-point lead and four 8-point leads in a five-plus-minute stretch late in the second half but allowed North Carolina to make a field goal on the ensuing possession each time.
The Blue Devils kept at it, however. They capitalized on their trips to the free-throw line, hitting 13 of 14 second-half attempts.
Even though their legs were giving way, Duke kept North Carolina from scoring easily, holding the Tar Heels to 34 percent shooting in the second half.
“We were dog-tired out there,” Duke guard Rasheed Sulaimon said. “We gave it our all, we sacrificed our bodies. Each and every one of us did. “
The Blue Devils side-stepped the landmine that is foul trouble. Without starting forward Ryan Kelly, who has not played since Jan. 8, the Blue Devils' already short bench was nearly called into extensive and important action.
Plumlee, Sulaimon, Curry and Quinn Cook all earned four fouls at some point in the second half but all managed to avoid a disqualifying fifth foul.
“I like my guys, but in a game like that you worry about foul trouble and fatigue,” Krzyzewski said. “And we were able to have the discipline to stay in the game with foul trouble, and had enough toughness to get through the fatigue.”
Plumlee led the Blue Devils with 18 points and 11 rebounds.
Curry scored nine points in the second half to finish with 11, while Cook added 18 points.
P.J. Hairston scored 23 points for North Carolina, which also saw Reggie Bullock score 15 and James Michael McAdoo tally nine.
All three players grabbed eight rebounds.
The win was the six of out of the past eight for Duke against North Carolina. The two teams will meet again in Chapel Hill on March 9.
Though far from a classic game in the rivalry's history, the Blue Devils said the victory revealed something about their character.
“No matter what the record is on each side, the game's going to be a hard-fought one, and we knew that coming in,” Sulaimon said. “They kind of threw the first punch, but that just shows a lot of character from this team. No matter how far we're down, we're going to believe in each other, we're going to fight together and try to gnaw and scratch and do whatever it tales to get back to the top and win.”
Nick Piotrowicz can be reached at 407-9952 or firstname.lastname@example.org