Marcus Paige (5) scored all 13 of his points in the second half to lift the Tar Heels. (Grant Halverson/Getty Images)
History dictated that North Carolina's seven-game win streak would come to a screeching halt against rival Duke on Thursday. An unranked Tar Heels team had not beaten a top-five Blue Devil team since 1990. No. 5 Duke, on the other hand, wanted no part of disappointment before it had to face top-ranked Syracuse on Saturday.
But we'd seen this before, where history, in the end, meant very little in a rivalry game. In fact, North Carolina's 74-66 win over No. 5 Duke -- a game postponed one week due to weather -- in Chapel Hill proved that the Tar Heels boast an extra gear when facing major-league opponents. Meanwhile, UNC managed to send its most hated opponent into an even tougher game this weekend with its head hanging low.
The Tar Heels didn't look up to the task for the first 20 minutes of Thursday action. North Carolina headed into intermission trying to shake off a mistake-prone half of basketball; the Heels committed nine turnovers in the first half, which turned into 18 points off those turnovers for Duke. The Blue Devils took advantage of those opportunities for a 37-30 lead at the break.
Carolina looked a little more sure of itself in the second half, thanks in part to Marcus Paige. The sophomore scored all 13 of his points during the final 20 minutes, and perhaps none were bigger than Paige's two points off a driving layup with 1:31 to play that pushed the Tar Heels ahead 66-62. North Carolina had stormed back thanks to an offensive lull from Duke. The Blue Devils went nearly nine minutes without a field goal midway through the second half, a sluggish stretch that pulled life back into the Dean Smith Center.
Paige was a catalyst down the stretch, but several Tar Heels stepped up. Leslie McDonald scored a season-high 21 points while James Michael McAdoo finished with a double-double of 10 points and 10 rebounds.
This is the same Carolina squad that started its conference slate with an 0-3 record, yet it's not the same Carolina team at all. Since then, the Tar Heels have won nine of 10 games, and the win against Duke marked an intriguing milestone for this roster.
As North Carolina continues to cruise through the back end of its ACC slate, Duke doesn't have much time to rebound. The Blue Devils welcome top-ranked Syracuse to Cameron Indoor on Saturday. Of course, the Orange are also coming off a loss, as well, so it's worth watching which teams actually show up this weekend in Durham.
As North Carolina's students charged the court after toppling Duke, it became clear this Tar Heel squad is peaking at the right time. It faces a manageable schedule before closing the year against these same Blue Devils on the road, but coach Roy Williams' team has already proven that a team's makeup in the second half of the conference slate is a lot more important than its makeup at the beginning. The question is whether this ride can continue on into the NCAA tournament.