The beginning of February brings the last gasps of winter’s chills, or so the frozen masses hope. With it comes the realization that March Madness approaches. The groundhog emerges and begins to contemplate what team he thinks will go all the way this season. He too needs to get his brackets in on time. Some years the groundhog hits the snooze and slumbers through the final weeks before the NCAAs. Not this year. You know he was watching last night as the Battle of Tobacco Road was again joined at Cameron Indoor Stadium. A night that had promise early ended in disappointment for the Devils as the Tar Heels battled back from double digit deficits to win 79-73.
Freshman Brandan Wright scored 19 points while Tyler Hansbrough added 16 to lead the fifth-ranked Tar Heels past No. 16 Duke 79-73, earning their second straight win in Cameron Indoor Stadium and handing the Blue Devils their first three-game losing streak in nearly eight years.
Rookie Ty Lawson added 15 points for the Tar Heels (21-3, 7-2 Atlantic Coast Conference), who trailed by 10 points early in the second half before finally going ahead to stay in the final minutes.
Last year, Hansbrough led a youth-laden group into Cameron to close the regular season and spoil All-American J.J. Redick’s final home game in an 83-76 win. And once again, the Tar Heels rallied from a double-digit deficit and came up with the game’s big baskets in the final minutes.
This time, however, the Tar Heels hung around while constantly subbing in an endless stream of fresh bodies while pressuring Duke’s ballhandlers the entire way. By the time the game was entering its final minutes, North Carolina looked fresher and found ways to knock down the critical shots against the fast-starting Blue Devils (18-6, 5-5).
North Carolina didn’t take its first lead until there were about 5 minutes left, but shot 59 percent after halftime and hit 7 of 8 free throws in the final 31 seconds to seal it.
The regular season for both teams wraps up in Chapel Hill in less than four weeks. The Tar Heels record and big wins against Ohio State and Tennessee have made up for a pair of in conference disappointments (at NC State and at Virginia Tech) and an early season loss to Gonzaga. They play four of their last seven games at home, and are poised to contend for a number one seed in the NCAA tournament.
Duke meanwhile is riding a three game losing streak, and has to travel for five of their remaining seven games. Despite the 26 points from Freshman Jon Scheyer, the Devils were unable to hold off the Heels. This is a young Duke team. The sole Senior has logged one minute of playing time this season. How they respond to this adversity will define them and give some indication of how far they can and will go in the tournament. By the time the Devils get to Carolina they could be a broken team, or they could be riding high winners of six straight and looking to avenge last night’s loss.
Neither team faces a ranked opponent until that game. When the rivalry picks up where it left off. Five weeks from today the big dance kicks off with its sixty four entrants. The groundhog is awake and he will be watching.
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