CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- There was a lot at stake yesterday for top-ranked North Carolina. Though the Tar Heels had clinched the Atlantic Coast Conference regular-season championship, they needed to beat Duke virtually to lock up a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.
But there was a lot less on the line for sixth-ranked Duke. Regardless of the outcome, the Blue Devils were not going to move in the ACC standings.
"Usually, this is for seeding in the ACC tournament, something other than for Carolina guys to say 'ha-ha,' or for Duke guys to say 'ha-ha,' " said North Carolina coach Dean Smith. "We have problems in Yugoslavia that are far more important than this game."
World problems aside, the 21,572 mostly Tar Heels fans at the Smith Center had the first and last laughs against their archrivals. In fact, they yukked it up for most of North Carolina's impressive, 83-69 victory. But the Blue Devils weren't laughing.
The offense, led by the outside shooting of sophomore guard Donald Williams and the inside power of junior center Eric Montross, helped the Tar Heels to a 10-point halftime lead. But it was North Carolina's suffocating defense, which limited Duke to a season-low 35.5 percent shooting, that proved the difference.
"We played well here, but we didn't play well in the first five minutes of the first half and the first five minutes of the second half," said Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, whose team was again without junior forward Grant Hill, its leading scorer, because of a sprained toe. "They punished us for that."
While Williams redeemed himself for a poor performance in last month's loss to Duke by hitting 10 of 15 shots -- including five of eight three-point attempts -- for a career-high 27 points, Montross doled out most of the punishment. It wasn't the fact that he scored 18 points, it's when he scored a bundle of them.
After a three-point shot by freshman guard Chris Collins pulled Duke (23-6, 10-6) to 35-29 late in the first half, Montross scored on a three-point play. It started a stretch of 10 straight points by the 7-foot-1, 270-pound center during what would be a 19-1 run by the Tar Heels, including a 14-1 burst to begin the second half.
"We wanted to come out fast in the second half," said Montross, who also had seven rebounds and three blocked shots. "We always want to take advantage of what the opposition gives us."
Said Duke center Cherokee Parks: "He [Montross] did a great job. He was sticking with everything. When he plays like that, he's very difficult to stop."
The victory was the ninth straight overall and completed an unbeaten season (14-0) at home for North Carolina (26-3, 14-2). The last time a Tar Heels team did that was 1987. The loss magnified how much the Blue Devils miss Hill.
With Hill out, North Carolina focused on stopping Bobby Hurley. The senior point guard, who broke the NCAA career assist
record last week against Maryland, had one of his worst games of the season. Hurley finished with six points and six assists. Collins led the Blue Devils with 15 points. Duke also was missing something else: emotion.
"The last few games have been extremely emotional and intense for us," said Hurley, who has 1,052 career assists. "We just couldn't get to the level that Carolina was at. Now, we have to know that if we lose one game, we're out."
Not quite. But with the ACC tournament about to start and the NCAA tournament now in sight, the stakes will suddenly get a lot higher than they were yesterday. Just ask the Carolina guys when they stop laughing.
ACC men's tournament
(At Charlotte [N.C.] Coliseum, all times p.m.)
8. Maryland vs. 9. N.C. State, 7:30
4. Wake Forest vs. 5. Va., noon
N.C. vs. 8-9 winner, 2:30
2. Fla. State vs. 7. Clemson, 7
3. Duke vs. 6. Ga. Tech, 9:30
4-5 winner vs. 1-8-9 winner, 1:30
winner vs. 3-6 winner, 4
Semifinal winners, 3