By Bret Strelow
DURHAM ó Ty Lawson offered a primal scream and playful smile as he jogged past a dejected group of Cameron Crazies.
The final stop on a successful road tour could keep North Carolina from straying far from home for the next three weeks.
The top-ranked Tar Heels clinched an outright ACC championship by collecting a 76-68 victory at sixth-ranked Duke on Saturday night.
UNC, which has won in its last three trips to Cameron Indoor Stadium, set a school record by going 13-0 on the road this season.
“A lot of teams come in here and feel like they can’t win in this building,” UNC guard Wayne Ellington said. “It’s tough to come in here and win, but we come in with confidence and feel like we can always win.”
UNC (29-2, 14-2 ACC) finished with an unbeaten road record for the first time since 1984. Memphis (10-0) is the only other Division I team without a road loss.
The Tar Heels and Blue Devils (26-4, 13-3) met in a tiebreaking finale to determine the ACC champion for the first time since 1991, and UNC earned at least a share of the title for the third time in four years.
The outcome had additional meaning because the conference’s top team could reach the Final Four without playing another game outside the state.
The ACC Tournament begins Thursday in Charlotte, and both Tobacco Road rivals likely are headed to Raleigh for the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament. The Tar Heels are now the favorite to earn the No. 1 seed in the Charlotte Regional.
“There are so many things that just accumulate to one moment,” UNC junior Marcus Ginyard said.
Jon Scheyer’s tiebreaking putback with 5:42 left gave Duke its first lead since the opening minute, but North Carolina posted the final 10 points.
Ellington evened the score at 68-all when he made a layup with 3:03 remaining, and Tyler Hansbrough’s putback a minute later pushed the Tar Heels ahead for good.
“I think we definitely used too much emotion ó just raw emotion throughout the course of the game, especially myself,” said Duke senior DeMarcus Nelson, who played his final home game. “When you’re playing against a team like that, you have to have some poise. … I think we might’ve played on raw emotion, and it drained us.”
Reserve forward Danny Green scored a team-high 18 points, grabbed eight rebounds and recorded seven of UNC’s season-high 15 blocks. Deon Thompson swatted five shots.
Hansbrough, who didn’t shoot a free throw for the second time in his career, matched Ellington’s total of 16 points and finished with 15 boards.
Green and Ellington shot a combined 4-for-24 in an 11-point home loss to Duke on Feb. 6, when the Blue Devils made 11 attempts from 3-point range in the first 23 minutes. Lawson missed that contest with an ankle injury, and the result pushed Duke ahead of UNC by two games in the league standings.
The Tar Heels switched on screens set against their defense Saturday, and Duke went 10-for-29 on 3-pointers.
“This time around we got more hands up in their face when they shot,” Green said. “We played better defense, stayed in front of them, made them drive us and challenge us at the basket.”
Duke missed nine of its first 10 tries from 3-point range to fall behind 29-14, but guard Greg Paulus (15 points) hit three 3s in the next two minutes to pull the Blue Devils within 31-26.
Ellington answered with his first 3-pointer in 11 career attempts against Duke, and Paulus missed a 23-footer on the next possession. Green dunked over Paulus to finish a three-on-one fastbreak, and Ellington followed a steal with a layup.
“I think we have gotten better defensively,” UNC coach Roy Williams said. “We’ve been drilling it since the first day. I don’t think anybody works harder on it than our kids.”
Duke trailed 42-31 at halftime, cut the deficit to four points in the next four minutes and broke even with 9:45 remaining.
The Blue Devils went 0-for-11 from the field and committed one turnover after Scheyer gave Duke a 68-66 edge.
“To win a game like this, you have to get up by two possessions,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “That puts game pressure on them, and we were never able to put game pressure on them.”
NOTES: UNC will open the ACC Tournament on Friday at noon against the winner of a first-round game between eighth-seeded Wake Forest and ninth-seeded Florida State. Duke will begin play Friday at 7 p.m. against either seventh-seeded Georgia Tech or 10th-seeded Virginia. … The Tar Heels’ jerseys had a black patch with the name “Eve” to honor slain student body president Eve Carson. There was a moment of silence before the national anthem, and the teams came together at midcourt following the conclusion of the song. … The Manning brothers, Peyton and Eli, sat behind one basket with new Duke football coach David Cutcliffe.
Contact Bret Strelow at 704-797-4258 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
By Bret Strelow