Down 16 points to archrival North Carolina, the fifth-ranked Duke Blue Devils looked the furthest thing from defending national champions. They could not even defend their home court against a team with a freshman point guard making his sixth career start, and they certainly couldn't defend the Tar Heels' big men.
But to count out Duke is to count out Nolan Smith. Bad idea. The Blue Devils' latest four-year star doesn't play to the crowd like J.J. Redick, doesn't emanate charisma like Shane Battier or Grant Hill. He does, however, possess the biggest heart on the court most nights no matter the opponent -- and against hated North Carolina, it practically jumped through his jersey.
Smith's career-high 34 points helped Duke (22-2) take command of the Tar Heels (17-6) in the second half for a 79-73 victory that tightened the Devils' grip on first place in the ACC. He didn't do it alone. On the contrary, he got help from an unlikely sidekick, sophomore Seth Curry -- whose torrid shooting paved the way for his own big night (a Duke career-high 22 points) -- as well as a relentless effort from Blue Devils forwards on the offensive glass.
But Smith was the guy in the locker room afterward smiling like a proud father, the ambassador for a team still carving its identity 24 games into the season but continuing to lord over its rival and its conference.
"In the second half we showed who we can be going forward, once we get closer to March," said Smith, who hit 8 of 11 shots for 22 points in the second half. "We definitely needed a performance like this to show we're a tough team."
The Blue Devils didn't look so tough in the first half. With the help of North Carolina's upstart freshman point guard, Kendall Marshall, putting the ball in all the right places, Tar Heel big men Tyler Zeller and John Henson made mincemeat of Duke defenders Mason and Miles Plumlee and Ryan Kelly. In building a 43-29 halftime lead, UNC outrebounded Duke 27-18 and outscored the Devils 28-12 in the paint.
"We had to really face the facts and get real and know that we had to turn it around in the second half or we were going to get embarrassed out there," said Curry.
After a halftime speech in which coach Mike Krzyzewski urged them to "settle down" ("They were nuts is the word," he said), Duke came out in the second half like an entirely different team. Twice in the first 2:40, Kyle Singler grabbed offensive rebounds off missed second free throws and kicked them out to the perimeter. Three-pointers by Smith and Curry made for a pair of four-point possessions. Duke just kept pounding the glass and grabbed nine offensive rebounds in the second half. The Blue Devils scored 10 points off turnovers after notching none in the first.
"They were so much more aggressive on the offensive boards in the second half," said Tar Heels coach Roy Williams. " ... And we were going down and turning it over."
But what the Blue Devils truly started doing well was running their offense. It's no secret they go into every game wanting to knock down threes, but in the first half Smith seemed to be the only one getting looks. Enter Curry, who recently lost his starting spot to freshman point guard Tyler Thornton but has also started to look for his shot more.
Over a roughly eight-minute stretch of the second half, Curry scored 14 of Duke's 20 points to finally tie the game for the first time at 54-54 with 9:45 left. His hot streak included a pair of three-pointers and culminated with consecutive baseline jumpers -- the second after a nifty pump fake -- to elevate the Cameron decibel level from thunderous to earsplitting.
"It was fun," said Stephen's little bro. "I was on a roll. Teammates were getting the ball to me, plays were being called for me. I got into a good rhythm."
It's taken more than two months for the Liberty transfer to find that rhythm. On a team with two senior alpha dogs, Smith and Kyle Singler, and a freshman phenom, Kyrie Irving, who initially dictated the team's offense before his December foot injury, Curry had just one double-digit scoring night in his first six ACC contests. He exploded for 20 points against Boston College on Jan. 27, then vanished against St. John's and Maryland. Against NC State, he scored 13 points on 3-of-5 three-pointers but few could have seen a night like this coming.
"At times during the season I do stand around and watch Nolan and Kyle," said Curry. "But coming into tonight, I knew I had to be another punch out there for us. Nolan and I got going in the second half."
Duke needed Curry's big night because Singler, for the second time in four games, struggled mightily with his shot. UNC freshman star Harrison Barnes harassed him into a 3-of-17 shooting night, including just 1-of-6 from three. But Singler was equally effective bottling up Barnes, who came in averaging 22.7 points over his last three games. On Wednesday, he scored just nine.
By getting out on the wing and helping lock down UNC's perimeter shooters (the Tar Heels went 0-of-6 from three in the second half), Duke was also able to get a handle on sparkplug Marshall.
"We were able to make Marshall more a shooter than a passer," said Krzyzewski.
Toward the end of his postgame news conference, Krzyzewski was asked what the thrilling game meant for the ACC. The league has been much criticized this season, punctured by perceived mediocrity throughout its ranks. Entering Wednesday, Duke and UNC were the league's only teams ranked in the RPI Top 40.
Krzyzewski, understandably, defended the league, calling it "better than advertised," and singing the praises of both his team and the Tar Heels.
"The team we played tonight can play with anybody, and we're getting to the point where we might be able to play with anybody," he said. "Going forward, both teams will have a chance to cause trouble for some people."
It remains to be seen whether Duke's emotional second half Wednesday will serve as a sparkplug. Right now, the Blue Devils remain very much a work in progress. They need Singler to hit outside shots more consistently. They need Curry to be as aggressive as he was Wednesday. They need their big men to be ... well, bigger. If they runs into a more mature version of St. John's and North Carolina come March -- a team full of length and athleticism -- it could be in trouble.
But it still has Smith. The national player of the year contender and his teammates proved a lot of us wrong in last year's NCAA tournament, and he sure looks like a guy who wants to do it again.