For the third straight game, Duke lost a double digit lead and couldn't make the necessary winning plays down the stretch as the Blue Devils fell to North Carolina 79-73 at Cameron Indoor Stadium Wednesday night.
Duke led by as many as 10 with 16:33 remaining in the second half, but the Tar Heels gradually climbed out of the deficit and took their first lead on a Reyshawn Terry layup with 5:15 to go.
With Duke knocked back on its heels, North Carolina point guard Ty Lawson effectively finished off the Blue Devils with a pair of driving baskets.
Lawson beat Greg Paulus off the dribble, scored and was fouled to put the Tar Heels up 70-63 with 1:46 remaining, and then less than a minute later made a spin in the lane to get free for a left handed finish to push the margin back to six at 72-66.
"Their depth gets to you," Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said of the Tar Heels, who played nine players at least 11 minutes and 12 players overall. "They're very good. They have a lot of talent and a lot of depth. I feel bad for our team because I think that's as hard as they've played all year, and we've played hard every game. And that's after two agonizing, gut wrenching losses which I think shows the character of our kids that they are able to do that."
The Blue Devils stormed out of the gates hot by making seven of their first nine shots to go up 17-10 after beginning the game with a new look starting lineup.
Paulus was joined in the starting lineup by Jon Scheyer, Gerald Henderson, David McClure, and Brian Zoubek, and it sparked Duke early.
Scheyer ended up leading all scorers with 26 points before fouling out late in the game, and Henderson had arguably his best performance of the season with 14 points and four rebounds, but in the end Duke just didn't have enough horses in the stable to hold off each Tar Heel charge.
"Jon Scheyer and Gerald Henderson, for young kids were sensational," Krzyzewski said. "Their will to win was great. Greg Paulus has been a great leader and they alternated three or four guys on him and you get worn out. Our guys are in real good shape, but we don't have as many [as Carolina]."
Josh McRoberts and DeMarcus Nelson entered the game less than four minutes into the contest, and Duke's quick start continued as the Blue Devils ultimately built a 37-27 lead with less than three minutes remaining in the first half.
"We're constantly looking to get better, and that lineup had an unbelievable start," Krzyzewski said, "but you can't sustain something like that. But there was energy...We just can't stand pat, I'm not going to stand pat. We're going to keep playing hard, and whatever the hell that means or wherever the heck that goes, then that's where we're going, and I would hope that's some place good."
Paulus and Nelson reached double figures, and McRoberts added 11 rebounds despite getting into second half foul trouble.
Zoubek did a nice job containing North Carolina forward Tyler Hansbrough in the early going and the 6-9, 250 pounder struggled to find an offensive rhythm until the second half.
But with Tar Heel freshman Brandan Wright enjoying a 19 point, nine rebound performance and Duke making just 3-of-10 second half free throws, Hansbrough's slow start didn't cost his team.
The sophomore All-American candidate ended up with 16 points, as he hit some key mid-range shots and was a perfect 6-for-6 from the free throw line to help the Tar Heels preserve their late lead.
Duke's loss is its third in a row, and now the Blue Devils are facing back to back road games at Maryland and Boston College, where an NCAA Tournament bid could become uncertain at best if Duke can't figure out how to get back in the win column.
"We have to just keep fighting," Krzyzewski said. "Good things happen to people who fight and keep working together and we're getting better. Sometimes when you lose you don't see that but obviously we're a better basketball team today than we were for Virginia or Florida State."
North Carolina's win was its second straight victory at Cameron Indoor Stadium.