by Emily Fedewa, GoHeels.com
CHAPEL HILL -- Before last night, this North Carolina basketball team had never felt the floor of the Smith Center shake.
But this game was no ordinary game, the crowd was no ordinary crowd and the Smith Center shook on the way to Carolina's 74-66 win over archrival Duke.
There's never anything quite like the UNC-Duke game, but this year something was different. The building was filled to bursting with fans that were forced to wait through snowstorms and postponements for this game.
And they were hungry, hungry enough to make the Smith Center electric.
"(The energy) was unbelievable," sophomore Marcus Paige said. "That's probably the loudest, craziest environment I've been in—home or away—and obviously that helps when we're making a run, when we get the lead and the place just erupts. It makes you play with even more passion and really try to get it done."
"Every time we made a play (the crowd was) right there with us, every time we inched back, even when we got down 11, they didn't give up on us, we didn't give up on our effort or our intensity and those things matter."
Carolina was able to feed off that energy and it fought back from that 11-point deficit in the second half by switching up its defense—specifically calling on a 1-3-1 zone that it had yet to debut in a game - to keep the Blue Devils guessing.
The deafening crowd and a new defense weren't the only contributing factors to the big win, though. The Tar Heels were also able to use their size advantage against a slightly smaller Duke team to execute on the boards.
"(Rebounding) was huge. That was one thing we talked about: we're the bigger team, we have guys that can rebound better, we need to outrebound them," Paige said. "(We said) we have to win the war on the boards in order for us to have a chance because of how good a shooting team they are and we stepped up."
UNC outrebounded Duke 43-30, and those rebounds were especially crucial when Carolina's varied defense unsettled the Blue Devils and caused them to start missing shots, giving UNC chances to take advantage of Duke's empty possessions.
The Tar Heels capitalized on those chances by shooting better in the second half, but they also capitalized by getting to the line and making free throws down the stretch - something Carolina has struggled with this season.
In the last five minutes of the game, UNC went a perfect 8-8 from the free throw line, first to get within two and then - after James Michael McAdoo tied it and Leslie McDonald and Paige got Carolina up by four - to put the game away.
Freshman Nate Britt alone went 4-4 in the final minute, and 6-6 throughout the game, to help seal the win for his team.
"Loved our guys' composure down the stretch. Free throws have been a problem for us; there is no question," head coach Roy Williams said. "But we stepped up there...I think that was really big for us."
The volume was already earsplitting, but the crowd managed to get louder after each free throw swished through the net and the outcome became clear.
After losing in the Smith Center to the Blue Devils for the last two years, Williams wanted nothing more than to live up to that crowd and that atmosphere.
"The biggest thought I had when I came out, the crowd was into it so much. Last year on senior day, I felt that we really let the crowd down, and I didn't want to do that tonight," Williams said. "Our crowd was sensational the whole game, even when we were down, they were into it. It was the only negative thought I had before the game sitting on the bench, I hope we don't let them down."
And if the rush to midcourt and the emotion as the alma mater rang out after the final buzzer were any indication, Williams got his wish.