DURHAM, N.C. -- A team that has won back-to-back national championships usually has little to prove, but Duke proved a lot last night at Cameron Indoor Stadium.
The fifth-ranked Blue Devils showed they are still a formidable power, at least on their home court. And they showed they are not willing to give an inch to their archrivals, North Carolina.
After getting Tar Heels center Eric Montross into second-half foul trouble, Duke broke open a close game and won easily, 81-67, to capture its third straight game and send sixth-ranked North Carolina to its second straight defeat.
Senior guard Bobby Hurley led the Blue Devils (16-3, 5-3) with 20 points and Montross paced the Tar Heels with a game-high 22 points and 13 rebounds. North Carolina (17-3, 6-2) is tied for first in the Atlantic Coast Conference with Florida State.
"At this point of the season, this is definitely our biggest win," said Hurley, who also had seven assists to pass former Nevada-Las Vegas star Greg Anthony for fourth on the all-time list. "We really needed this one."
Said North Carolina coach Dean Smith, whose team was coming off a 26-point loss at Wake Forest: "There is a long way to go this season. I hope we can regroup."
Things looked a little shaky for Duke late in the first half, when the Tar Heels overcame a 28-17 deficit with a 13-1 run. At the time, junior forward Grant Hill was on the bench after picking up his third personal foul with 5:33 left in the half.
But Montross picked up his third foul less than five minutes into the second half and his fourth with 11:21 remaining. Though he came out of the game for less than two minutes, the center wasn't the same intimidating force after he returned.
"Looking back it [the fourth] wasn't a smart foul," said Montross, who had tried to block Antonio Lang as the Duke forward went in for a dunk. "I didn't want him to dunk and get the crowd going crazy."
As it turned out, the foul got the crowd going and, eventually, the Blue Devils going as well. Trailing 52-50, Duke went on an 11-4 run that produced a five-point lead and forced Smith to call a timeout.
Immediately after the timeout, Donald Williams pulled the Tar Heels to within three on a short baseline jumper. But Hurley, as has become his habit, hit a crucial three-pointer to give the Blue Devils a 64-58 lead. The lead would grow as Duke scored on its last 11 possessions.
"It was a terrific effort on our part, and their part," said Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski. "I think we shot a little better than them, hit the free throws and got a couple of big buckets. Certainly the final score wasn't indicative of how close a game it was. That's the way two teams of this caliber should play."
It was the way Duke and North Carolina usually play when they meet up. Leave the finesse for Florida State. This was the ACC's imitation of the Big East, or Big Ten. Bodies flying everywhere.
"We haven't played a team as good as Carolina, a team as powerful," said Hill, who overcame his early foul trouble to finish with 15 points, eight rebounds and, as importantly, those same three personals. "I think we did a good job. It was a defensive struggle, a real battle."
The Tar Heels, averaging a shade less than 90 points, were held under 70 for the second straight game. North Carolina shot a dismal 25 of 66 from the field, including two of 15 on three-pointers. Only Montross and George Lynch (17 points and eight rebounds) were in double figures; Duke had five, including Lang in a rare appearance off the bench.
In the end, the 6-footer, not the 7-footer, took charge of the game. It was Hurley, not Montross, who made the biggest plays down the stretch. All four of his field goals were three-pointers, each more vital than the one before.
"I was looking to get everyone involved in the second half," he said.
"When the game is on the line like that and Bobby takes an open three-pointer, you can pretty much count it," Hill said. "He just gets his feet and body square. He has made so many of those big shots for us."
Said Krzyzewski: "Bobby looked more alert tonight than he has the last few weeks."
So did Duke.
..... ..... Conf. ....... Overall
:. ....... .... W ... L ... W ... L ... Pct.
N.Carolina .... 6 ... 2 ... 17... 3 ... .850
Fla. State .... 6 ... 2 ... 15... 6 ... .714
W.Forest ...... 5 ... 2 ... 13... 3 ... .813
Duke .......... 5 ... 3 ... 16... 3 ... .842
Virginia ...... 4 ... 3 ... 12... 4 ... .750
Ga. Tech ...... 4 ... 3 ... 11... 5 ... .688
Clemson ....... 1 ... 6 ... 10... 6 ... .625
Maryland ...... 1 ... 6 ... 10... 7 ... .588
N.C. State .... 1 ... 6 .... 5.. 10 ... .333
Duke 81, North Carolina 67
Virginia at Maryland
Wake Forest at N.C. State
Clemson at Georgia Tech