Duke and UNC tangled in Cameron Saturday night, and while Duke controlled the game, UNC certainly made it interesting. But in the end, Duke had Jabari Parker and UNC did not.
Parker had a brilliant game, scoring 30 points and grabbing 11 rebounds. But it wasn't just that. After the Wake debacle, Duke needed someone to step up, and to a large extent, it was Parker.
In his radio interview after the game, Parker said that the upperclassmen - Tyler Thornton, Josh Hairston and Andre Dawkins all started, which is pretty cool because they sort of decided to come to Duke together even though Dawkins arrived a year ahead of schedule - set the tone.
In the first few minutes, Duke's defense was superb. UNC had trouble just passing.
As almost always happens in these games, though, one team runs an emotional edge to an early lead and after the emotions wear down, the other team creeps back. It doesn't happen every time, but nearly ever time.
And sure enough, UNC did creep back. But it was a bit different than usual.
Though he finished with 24, Duke threw a blanket over Marcus Paige for the first half and got James Michael McAdoo in early foul trouble. And while UNC cut the halftime lead to three, Duke took control in the second and built a 19 point lead.
The Heels managed to cut the lead down to as low as eight and played extremely well in the last four minutes or so, and particularly Paige, Duke never let them back in.
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Here's some food for thought: Harrison Barnes was the third best player to come out of Iowa in the last four years. You can absolutely argue that about his high school teammate Doug McDermott, who has far outperformed Barnes in college. But you can make a credible argument for Marcus Paige as well.
When you look at him, like Johnny Dawkins or Juan Dixon, Paige looks to skinny to take very seriously.
It's deceiving. The guy is a tremendous talent. Moreover, he's gone from being a point guard to a dominant scorer. Is anyone seriously willing to put Barnes's two years at UNC up against Paige's? He's a remarkable player.
If it wasn't clear before it certainly was at the end of this game. Held to six in the first half and scoreless in the second until the 12:53 mark, Paige was nearly unstoppable. And it's not like there was any mystery about who was going to shoot most of the time.
When UNC needed points, he was simply brilliant.
We'll say this, too: we won't be shocked if he has a Stephen Curry sort of performance in the tournament. UNC's core is good enough to compete; if they're in a game, Paige is a complete wild card.
UNC wouldn't be happy with a highly physical opponent like Wichita State. Otherwise, though, he's capable of shooting them past almost anyone.
As we said, Parker had a brilliant game, but it wasn't just points and rebounding. It was when he stepped up. He got rebounds when Duke really, really needed the ball. He got points when UNC was making a push. And when Paige was lining up for another three to cut the lead back to single digits with 2 1/2 left, Parker was the one who blocked it.
He got a lot of support from Rodney Hood, who had one of his better games for Duke. Hood finished with 24 points on 8-13 shooting.
Rasheed Sulaimon finished with 10 while Quinn Cook ended with 11.
After the game, Coach K rightly pointed out that Duke hammered UNC on the boards, winning the rebound battle 34-20 and the offensive war 16-6. That's hugely impressive (Amile Jefferson had eight of those boards).
But here's something else which is impressive for Duke and maybe disastrous for UNC: James Michael McAdoo was held to zero rebounds.
In 24 minutes.
He was outrebounded by, well, everyone, but in particular by Tyler Thornton (1), Dawkins (2), Rasheed Sulaimon (4), Paige (3) and JP Tokoto (5).
The common factor? None of those guys are over 6-5.
Though it was a really good win in a lot of ways, not least of all because Duke shot 18-20 from the line in the second half, things still got shaky at the end.
Greensboro offers a few chances to work on winning time, but after the ACC Tournament, it's one and done. In every Duke loss, save Syracuse, Duke has lost control of the closing minutes. Kansas, Arizona, Notre Dame, Clemson, Carolina and Wake Forest all follow this pattern.
It's not that Duke isn't as good as any of these teams, it's just that the opponents had more composure at the end.
So matchups aside, that's what it comes down to for the postseason: handling winning time.
Fortunately, Parker understands that his role has to change. After the game he said this: "No more freshman. I don't like getting in that category anymore because my team needs me more than just an 18-year-old. They need somebody with experience through the whole game. ... It's time to grow up."
Well said and realized at the right time.
On to Greensboro!