CHAPEL HILL, N.C. - North Carolina trailed by nine points with 3 minutes left, the kind of margin that might have been insurmountable for the Tar Heels in recent years.
“Last year, we would have probably given up,” center Sean May said.
For this year’s team, it wasn’t an option.
Dynamic freshman Marvin Williams converted a three-point play with 17 seconds left to cap an 11-0 game-closing run and give the second-ranked Tar Heels a 75-73 victory over No. 6 Duke on Sunday.
North Carolina (26-3, 14-2), playing without the ill Rashad McCants for the fourth straight game, won its first ACC regular season championship since 1993, the same year of its most recent national title.
“It’s been a long journey,” said senior Jackie Manuel, one of three players left from an 8-20 team three years ago. “To be honest, I didn’t really know if we could do it. You really appreciate the highs when you’ve been at the bottom and seen the worst.”
May had 26 points and 24 rebounds to record his eighth straight double-double for North Carolina, and his final rebound was the most important. After J.J. Redick missed a long 3-pointer that would have won it for the Blue Devils, teammate Daniel Ewing had a final chance from just inside the arc.
But his shot was short, and May leaped high for the carom. He cradled the ball in his hand while the clock ran out, then hurled it into the stands. Hundreds of the 22,125 fans — the largest crowd ever at the Dean E. Smith Center — rushed the court to celebrate the Tar Heels’ third victory over their Tobacco Road rival in the past 16 meetings.
“I’ve never experienced anything like that, and it’s something I’ll never forget for the rest of my life,” May said. “For me, it feels good, because I’ve never beaten them. Finally, to get an opportunity, it feels good.”
Shelden Williams had 25 points and six blocks for Duke (22-5, 11-5), which played without guard Sean Dockery for the third straight game. Redick scored all 17 of his points in the first half.
“We have to close the chapter to this book, the regular season, and our guys were in every ballgame,” Duke coach Mike Kryzewski said. “I’m proud of them.”
Even without Redick scoring at his usual pace, the Blue Devils seemingly had control late in the second half. They broke from a tie at 64 with a 9-0 run capped by a 3 by Lee Melchionni with 3:07 left. That was his fifth 3 of the second half and it gave Duke a 73-64 lead.
“I love the competitiveness of our team when we were down nine inside 3 minutes,” Roy Williams said. “I told them that if they were to make a total commitment to every possession on the defensive end and every possession on the offensive end, we would still have a chance still at the end.”
Jawad Williams stopped the Tar Heels’ drought with a tip-in and Marvin Williams added two free throws to make it 73-68. On the other end, DeMarcus Nelson missed the front end of a 1-and-1, and May powered inside for a three-point play to cut the margin to two.
“We played hard and pushed hard for the majority of the second half,” Shelden Williams said. “All of a sudden, we got a little cushion and laid off some, and had a few turnovers. Carolina was able to convert on those and got the momentum.”
Later, North Carolina point guard Raymond Felton had a chance to tie it, but his runner from the lane rattled around the rim before bouncing out. Then Ewing, the lone senior on the court for the Blue Devils, lost the ball near midcourt, and Felton grabbed it and quickly called a timeout with 27 seconds left.
“That was probably the play of the game,” May said.
The situation was eerily similar to the one the Tar Heels faced earlier this season in a 71-70 loss at Duke, when they couldn’t get off a shot in the final seconds. This time, Felton drove to the basket and was fouled by Nelson. He swished the first free throw to make it 73-72.
His second bounced high off the rim, and after a brief scramble for the ball, Marvin Williams grabbed it and quickly shot over Duke walk-on Patrick Johnson. The shot banked in as he was fouled, and his free throw capped the furious rally.
“You’ve got to have the mentality to bear down,” Melchionni said. “We shot one free throw in the last 3 minutes with a nine-point lead, and that’s unacceptable. You can’t do that and win a game.”
Duke coach said that after winning his second gold medal in men's basketball would be his Team USA finale. That may not be the case anymore.
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