CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- For months now, North Carolina had been reading this and hearing that about Duke. How the Blue Devils were college basketball's next dynasty. How the Tar Heels had slipped a notch or two in the hierarchy of the Atlantic Coast Conference.
North Carolina put an end to those notions last night, as well as to Duke's unbeaten season and its 23-game winning streak. Before a surprisingly nasty crowd of 21,572 at the Smith Center and a national television audience, the ninth-ranked Tar Heels shocked the nation's No. 1 team, 75-73.
"We're delighted to beat Duke at home in a game that was exciting to say the least," said North Carolina coach Dean Smith. "We made it a little exciting."
The Tar Heels certainly did, and it nearly cost them dearly. After building a nine-point lead early in the second half, and still leading by six, 73-67, with 2:32 remaining, North Carolina watched as Duke tied the game at 73 on a rebound follow by Christian Laettner with 63 seconds left.
Then things got a little wild.
Or, as Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said later, "It was somewhat chaotic at the end, to say the least. A lot of crazy things happened."
Two free throws by Derrick Phelps gave the Tar Heels the lead -- as well as the game's final points -- with 44.5 seconds to go. Duke went to Laettner, who missed a drive with 25 seconds left as Eric Montross stepped in front. Victory seemed at hand for the Tar Heels. Or was it?
First sophomore forward Brian Reese blew a layup, and Montross mishandled the rebound follow with 11.4 seconds to play. The ball squirted to the corner, and Duke had one more shot. Again the Blue Devils went to Laettner, who faked a three-pointer and drove to the basket. His running one-hander in the lane bounced on the back rim a couple of times, before Phelps grabbed the rebound and time ran out.
"It was very scary," said North Carolina captain Hubert Davis, who led the Tar Heels with 16 points, but took an ill-advised jumper during Duke's furious rally. "We composed ourselves at the right time. We got lucky. Christian usually makes that shot."
Said Laettner, "The first shot [with 25 seconds left] was a shot I should have made. The last shot was a good one, too. It just didn't go in."
The final buzzer touched off a wild celebration at the normally sedate Dean Dome, as the students came charging out of the stands, spilled onto the court and cut down one of the nets. It was also strange to see the North Carolina players so delirious after a victory, even one over their archrivals.
The defeat for Duke (17-1, 7-1) was its first since a 96-74 loss to the Tar Heels in last season's ACC Tournament final. The Blue Devils went on to win the national championship and got off to their best start in school history. But North Carolina (16-3, 6-2) ended that run last night.
"It hurts to lose," said Duke point guard Bobby Hurley, whose six assists helped him break the school's career record and whose six turnovers helped North Carolina take control early in the second half. "But you have to give them a lot of credit. They surprised me, how strong they were inside."
The combination of Montross and Kevin Salvadori, both 7-foot sophomores, helped control Laettner inside. Montross (12 points, nine rebounds, three blocked shots) and Salvadori (12 points, six rebounds, two blocks) wore down Duke's 6-11 All-American, holding him to 12 points and getting him in foul trouble. Brian Davis led the Blue Devils with 17.
After a 10-0 run to start the second half gave North Carolina a 48-39 lead -- the largest deficit Duke had faced all season -- the key for the Tar Heels was keeping the Blue Devils off the free-throw line. After going into the bonus with a little under 13 minutes left, Duke had only two one-and-ones the rest of the way.
"We were honestly trying not to foul," said Smith. "But I looked up and it was 9-1 [in fouls]. You can't foul Duke. They take it to the basket, trying to draw fouls."
The Blue Devils, who have made more free throws than their opponents have shot this season, did just that and nearly pulled off the comeback. But Duke missed some critical free throws -- including a pair by Hurley on a technical against North Carolina assistant Bill Guthridge midway through the second half -- and the Tar Heels survived by making theirs. North Carolina scored ++ its last 12 points on the line.
It was interesting how each team reacted to the outcome. The players were even more matter-of-fact than the coaches, who seemed drained by the experience. Said Krzyzewski, "I think both teams have to be tired and bruised. We could probably use a week off after that one."
"I got tired of hearing how great they are and how they can't be beaten," Montross said.
But North Carolina disproved that notion last night, and college basketball's next dynasty had, for the moment at least, been derailed.