This is just what they do.
The latest installment of college basketball's greatest rivalry turned into a sloppy game marred by fouls, missed free throws and poor shot-selection, but in the end, North Carolina and No. 5 Duke still produced a thrilling battle down the stretch before the Tar Heels escaped with a 74-66 home victory on Thursday night.
ESPN's John Gasaway summed it up perfectly:
A sloppy endearing great game.— John Gasaway (@JohnGasaway) February 21, 2014
Nevertheless, no matter how ugly it was at times, a win is a win for North Carolina, which played well when it mattered. Leslie McDonald led Roy Williams' squad with 21 points, Marcus Paige erased a forgettable night with some clutch buckets down the stretch, and the Heels sealed the victory by making their last 10 free throws after clanking from the charity stripe all night.
With its third win over a Top Five opponent and eighth win in a row overall, North Carolina improves to 19-7 and 9-4 in the ACC, while Duke drops to 21-6 and 10-4.
As Bleacher Report's C.J. Moore noted, the red-hot Tar Heels aren't a team you want to see in March:
I wouldn't want Tar Heels in the region of my favorite team. That length can overwhelm when they play w/ great effort.— CJ Moore (@CJMooreBR) February 21, 2014
Rodney Hood and Jabari Parker combined for 33 points, but the dynamic duo was mostly quiet in the second half as the Blue Devils let a double-digit lead slowly slip away.
Grantland's Shane Ryan put it bluntly:
Embarrassing. Jabari and Hood are right back into their "freeze up in a big game" mode— Shane Ryan (@ShaneRyanHere) February 21, 2014
Mike Krzyzewski's squad turned around an early Carolina advantage and led for much of the game, but after a Marshall Plumlee free throw put the Blue Devils in front, 52-43, with just under 14 minutes remaining, they went ice cold.
The Blue Devils wouldn't hit a field goal until Quinn Cook scored at the 6:26 mark, and in the remaining minutes, they made just a combined four buckets.
Duke had 5 baskets and 6 turnovers in the final 15:13 vs North Carolina (and was 1 for 11 from 3-point range)— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) February 21, 2014
In the meantime, Carolina's offense woke up.
Who will go farther during the NCAA tournament?
Paige, who had zero points in the first half, hit a three-pointer. Soon after, James Michael McAdoo, who finished with just 10 points, scored on the inside. Then McDonald knocked down a jumper with 3:54 remaining to give the Heels their first lead since midway through the first half.
They wouldn't give it up, as Paige hit a couple more clutch buckets and Nate Britt knocked down some free throws, making way for UNC students to rush the court.
Jabari Parker, Duke: B
Parker started off slow. He turned the ball over twice on Duke's first four possessions, and of his first three shot attempts, two were contested jumpers that he missed.
The nerves of his first Duke-UNC game eventually seemed to wear off, though, as he began getting more looks at the rim—where he is essentially unstoppable—and took over as the first half wound down.
Jabari Parker is the first Duke freshman with a double-double against UNC since Kyle Singler in 2008 #DukevsUNC— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) February 21, 2014
The pendulum swung back the other way in the second half, however, as Parker struggled on offense and didn't make a significant impact on defense.
It's hard to criticize a double-double (17 points, 11 rebounds), but the freshman phenom had an inconsistent game.
Marcus Paige, UNC: B+
Paige's success has been so critical for North Carolina this season, and that was once again apparent on Thursday.
For about the first 35 minutes, the sophomore point guard really struggled with Duke's pressure defense. He was turning the ball over and not really getting any shots he wanted—and the Tar Heels offense struggled as a result.
But in the final minutes, he started knocking down several buckets and was critical in propelling his team to a victory.
After a shaky start, he still managed to finish with 13 points and four assists.
Rodney Hood, Duke: B-
Carolina jumped out to a quick 6-0 lead in the early moments, and it looked like the Heels might run away with this thing early.
But Hood nearly single-handedly kept the Blue Devils in the game, knocking down five of his first six shots for 11 points in the first eight minutes.
Foul trouble limited him for the rest of the half, however, and with the exception of a couple of baskets in the second half, he didn't do much offensively, finishing with just 16 points on 15 shots.
Kennedy Meeks, UNC: B-
There was both some good and bad to Meeks' performance.
On the one hand, he cleaned up on the glass when he was in the game, was really difficult to deal with inside and showed off his excellent ability to deliver missile-like outlet passes.
On the other hand, however, he struggled to finish around the rim and committed some bad turnovers.
Because this was a makeup game after the first meeting was postponed due to inclement weather, Duke has just one full day of rest before hosting No. 1 Syracuse on Saturday night at 7 p.m. ET.
While that's tough, it's a situation very akin to what could potentially be in store during the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight. Following last week's win over Maryland, Rasheed Sulaimon talked about the importance of this stretch, via ESPN.com:
We did some conditioning on the couple of days that we had off, just to stay in shape. These next few days we just have to take care of our body, focus on one game at a time, not look ahead, and just really get our reps. This coming week is really going to be a big week for our program.
The Heels, meanwhile, face the same turnaround but with an easier opponent, as they host Wake Forest, which has dropped six straight games. Still, so soon after a mentally and physically draining win, it will be important that Williams' squad avoids a letdown.