10:19 PM EST, March 3, 2012
DURHAM, N.C. — Ticket beggars were stationed more than a mile from Cameron Indoor Stadium. Lounging in beach chairs just off the exit ramp from Rte. 15-501, they held the requisite signs, knowing full well the answer.
On this Saturday night, for this Duke-North Carolina game, only a roll of hundreds thicker than the Triangle phonebook was getting you a ticket. No credit or debit cards accepted, thank you.
Was the game worth the four-figure price?
Only if your house, car and face paint are Carolina blue and a Roy Williams bobblehead is your dinner table centerpiece.
Or, you just like knockouts.
In a collision of top-10 rivals, and with the ACC regular-season title at stake, the Tar Heels throttled the Blue Devils 88-70, their most lopsided margin at Cameron since a 20-point beatdown in 1989.
The NBA talent that made Carolina a consensus preseason No. 1? Check.
The closer's mentality so lacking in the teams' first meeting? Check.
The balance, depth and swagger of a national contender? Check.
"Tonight was about North Carolina's team," coach Roy Williams said. "Everybody did some good things."
Indeed, all five Tar Heels starters scored in double figures, and the bench contributed eight points and eight rebounds. Tyler Zeller was quietly efficient with 19 points on 9-of-11 shooting, and 10 rebounds in just 26 minutes; John Henson suffocated the rim defensively and contributed 13 points and 10 rebounds.
But the seminal star was point guard Kendall Marshall with game-highs of 20 points and 10 assists.
"The ultimate point guard," Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. "He was great tonight, but it's not the only time he's been great this year."
"He can play a heck of a lot better," Williams countered, "because he made some bonehead plays."
Not many, and same goes for the entire Carolina roster.
The No. 6 Tar Heels (27-4, 14-2 ACC) led by double figures for the final 35 minutes, bloody rare at Cameron during the Krzyzewski era. They strangled the No. 4 Devils on the boards 45-28 and shot 54.5 percent, their ACC-best this season.
"I thought they got us down and we got us down," Krzyzewski said. "We have to be tougher than that."
No question there. Duke leads the ACC in field goal percentage at 46.5, but in the first half, the Devils were staggeringly bad (26.5 percent).
Sure, Carolina is NBA-long, and its field goal percentage defense is the program's second-best in the last 50 years. But that doesn't explain or excuse 15 consecutive missed shots and consistently hesitant finishes at the rim from Austin Rivers, Seth Curry and Ryan Kelly.
From a 4-all tie, Carolina went on an 18-1 binge that essentially settled things. Duke (26-5, 13-3) and its fans attempted to channel the Devils' comeback from 20 down against North Carolina State last month, but the Tar Heels ain't the Wolfpack.
"The first half we dominated them," Marshall said. "It got a little messy in the second half, but we found a way to win."
Carolina led by as many as 26 points in the second half, by which time front-row guest Peyton Manning had bailed. The Indianapolis Colts (for now) quarterback missed Duke trim the margin to 11, but after Austin Rivers missed the front end of a bonus free throw that could have drawn the Devils within nine, Marshall answered.
Duke this season became the fourth ACC team to go 8-0 on the road in league play. But the Devils dropped three at home for only the second time in the last 15 years.
What else to expect in a truly bizarre year of basketball in America's most storied conference?
If Rivers wasn't hitting a three at the buzzer to stun Carolina at the Dean Dome and cap a 10-point rally in the final two-plus minutes, Florida State's Michael Snaer was doing the same to Duke at Cameron.
If the Tar Heels weren't losing by an unheard-of 33 points at Florida State, Virginia Tech was playing six consecutive ACC games decided by two points or less, or in overtime.
Empowered by his buzzer-beater, Rivers emerged as an all-conference talent. Distraught by his late missed free throw against Duke, Zeller rededicated himself and become a prime candidate for ACC player of the year.
"They can beat anybody," Krzyzewski said. "They were predicted to do that and they can. We feel fortunate to have split with them."
David Teel can be reached at 247-4636 or by e-mail at email@example.com. For more from Teel, read his blog at dailypress.com/sports/teeltime and follow him at twitter.com/DavidTeelatDP