Suffocating start

The North Carolina-Duke rivalry is legend for a reason. It’s laden with great individual performances that become Old North State folklore, ripe with incredible solo acts that define careers and elevate one of the blue bloods ahead of the other for one winter night.

Roy Williams didn't have much to be happy about.

The Smith Center patrons were treated to two such performances Saturday night.

Except, scratch that. Treated isn’t the word. They were teased, tormented, dragged through mud and hung up to dry by Duke’s Seth Curry in the first half and Mason Plumlee in the second.

It was senior night for UNC’s Dexter Strickland and walk-on Frank Tanner, but it was the Blue Devil seniors who stole the show and led their team to a 69-53 win against the Tar Heels — one in which UNC was beaten and buried before the first four minutes had ticked off the clock.

Duke has Curry to thank for that. The guard drained each of his first seven shots to spur the Blue Devils to an insurmountable 14-0 lead to start the game.

He was, simply, unstoppable.

Curry was putting the ball on the floor and attacking the hoop. He drove and pulled up and drove and stepped back. He hit runners and 3-pointers and even a shot he released inches from the floor. He rendered Reggie Bullock, one of the ACC’s most elite defenders, utterly befuddled as to how to stop the All-ACC candidate.

“I was playing off him too far, and he was just pulling up in my grill,” Bullock said. “He was just hitting tough shots … he definitely won — he was carrying his team on his back in the first half.”

Behind Curry’s magnificent first half — 18 points on 8-of-10 shooting — Duke built an 18-point halftime lead. The Blue Devils dominated the game from every angle.

It was a rough Senior Night -- offensively and emotionally -- for Dexter Strickland.

They ran their offense with precision and efficiency, knocking down nearly 70 percent of their first-half shots. On the other end, UNC’s increasingly dynamic offense was suddenly silenced.

Bullock and sophomore P.J. Hairston each failed to make a field goal in the opening half, and only James Michael McAdoo was able to scratch any success from the surface, as he hit a handful of shots to score nine first-half points. The fluid, up-tempo and in-sync style the Tar Heels had developed was amiss.

Curry was such a menacing offensive force that he single-handedly aggravated the Tar Heels out of their game.

“Seth couldn’t miss the first five minutes, and that was a stab in the heart,” Strickland said. “They’re too good of a team to come back from a big deficit like that.”

Yet, there was still an inkling of hope for the Tar Heels. After all, it’s the fabled Tobacco Road rivalry. Astonishing comebacks are fabricated within the lore, almost expected to happen when odds appear dreary. The Smith Center crowd was on edge, ready to spur the Tar Heels to a spirited second-half rally.

Plumlee made quick work of that dream.

McAdoo was able to keep the forward in check throughout the first half, but there was no answer for him after the break. He rattled off 10 consecutive points to open the second half, including converting two alley-oops, to eradicate any sting the Tar Heels were packing coming out of the locker room.

Plumlee scored 15 points and hauled in eight rebounds in the half that belonged to him. His impact extended beyond a box score, though, as his four offensive rebounds helped Duke maintain control of the flow of the game, and his constant effort in the post left McAdoo visibly exhausted by game’s end.

“(Curry)’s performance in the first half was excellent. He was just the best player on the court in the first half,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “In the second half, we had the best player on the court: Mason.”

Facing an uphill battle — nay, an up-mountain battle, given the way Duke was executing — UNC couldn’t get any closer than 14 points the rest of the way. It just wasn’t the Tar Heels’ night, as Strickland would say, as he fought tugging emotions of sullenness and frustration.

Even the open shots wouldn’t fall, as UNC was only able to hit one of its 14 3-point attempts — a Hairston bomb that swished through the net with five minutes remaining on the clock.

And, to compact those offensive frustrations, there were Curry and Plumlee, two archrivals registering two of the best performances of their seasons, with seemingly nothing capable of slowing them down.

“When a guy like him gets hot, there’s nothing you can do about it,” Hairston said of Curry. “It’s kind of scary.”

UNC’s staggering defeat was unpredictable entering Saturday. Sure, there was always the good chance that No. 3 Duke could emerge with a win, but it wasn’t going to be easy for the Blue Devils. The Tar Heels were winners of six straight and playing far-and-away their best ball of the season. There was an unshakable confidence that accompanied an evolved and matured team.

That demeanor shriveled and disappeared against Duke. The Blue Devils came out swinging, and UNC fell into a lull of finicky ballhandling and desperation jumpers in response.

For the first time since UNC switched to its smaller lineup, the Tar Heels’ early-season afflictions resurfaced and were as troublesome as ever as Duke hosted a clinic on UNC’s home court.

Now, the Tar Heels need to find yet another way to get back up. The small lineup, as it turns out, isn’t a magic bullet that cures all wounds and propels UNC into an untouchable realm. The loss returns the Tar Heels to earth.

There’s not much time to dwell there, either. March is just now gearing up, and a rivalry rematch is likely in exactly one week, as UNC and Duke are slated to square off for a third battle if the ACC Tournament seedings hold.

With that matchup looming, it’s something else to drive the Tar Heels.

“It just adds fuel to the fire,” Bullock said. “It burns. We’ve just got to take this burning feeling to the ACC Tournament.”

And, if the two bitter enemies meet again, it could be anybody’s one night in the spotlight.

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