This season, Duke has taken care of Louisville and Minnesota on neutral courts, blasted N.C. State at home, fought off Ohio State, demolished the always-dangerous Temple, handled the HAVOC against VCU and contained Kentucky's talent. But Wednesday night's five-point—often-times ugly—win over the 16-8 bubble-friendly North Carolina Tar Heels was the most impressive victory of the season so far.
If you haven't closed the article by now, stay with me.
The Blue Devils came out sluggish in the first half against Carolina. With the exception of the Miami game, they looked worse than they had all season, and it came on arguably the biggest stage.
Mike Krzyzewski's squad shot under 40 percent from the field, turned the ball over 11 times and tallied an embarrassing three assists. It looked like the team didn't truly understand the magnitude of the rivalry at hand.
In the final 20 minutes, however, something clicked.
The Blue Devils became energetic on defense. They gave up less open Tar Heel shots and started knocking down plenty of their own. They took better care of the ball and they fought back from a double-digit deficit to win by five.
But while a hard-fought, comeback victory adds fuel to the fire, that alone doesn't make this the most impressive victory of Duke's season.
It was because the Blue Devils won ugly, a necessary ability to have come March. They won without Ryan Kelly. They won with their two best players in foul trouble and struggling. They won because Coach K made a necessary tweak to the lineup. They won because of their less-heralded players.
They also won arguably the most heated rivalry game in all of sports.
A quick look at the box score doesn't tell the whole story about Mason Plumlee and Seth Curry, either.
Plumleee put up a double-double with 18 points and 11 rebounds, while Curry dropped 11 to go along with five 'boards, an assist and a block.
In truth, though, Duke's two stars weren't themselves. Plumlee got in early foul trouble and couldn't play with the physicality that he normally showcases. As a result, he was inconsistent and sometimes hesitant, turning the ball over four times.
Curry was cold as well. He hit a couple of treys, but shot just 3-of-10 from the field and was also hindered by foul problems.
Add in Kelly being on the sideline, and Duke failed to receive a stand-out game from any of its top three scorers.
In rivalry games, no matter the venue, that's usually a recipe for defeat. But the little guys—both figuratively and literally—stepped up in most inspiring fashion.
Quinn Cook filled up the box score with 18 points, six rebounds, two assists and four steals, He tends to do that a lot, but it was his steal and drawn foul that got both the crowd and Coach K necessarily energized.
Rasheed Sulaimon proved that he is one of the more heady true freshman in the land with 13 points and five assists. Plenty of more talented diaper dandies have wilted under the pressure of the UNC-Duke rivalry.
Tyler Thornton knocked down three corner treys and made countless integral plays on both sides of the court that don't show up into the box score.
All of those unsung impacts, of course, were made possible when Krzyzewski made the essential switch to a four-guard lineup, which ended up being one of the key turning points in the game.
This game isn't going to be sent into the time capsule, though. In fact, Coach K might just want to throw the game tape away completely. It's not going to be one that Plumlee or Curry will want to show NBA scouts, and it's not even going to sit near the top of Duke's tournament resume.
But no matter how ugly this victory was, this was a special win that—considering all the special circumstances—proved more than any other victory this season that Duke has the depth and resiliency to make a run to the Georgia Dome in March.