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March 5, 2011

Marshall, Barnes lead UNC to win, ACC title

CHAPEL HILL - Kendall Marshall walked down a line of outstretched arms, slapping every hand he could from the mob of fans reaching out toward him.

At that moment, he didn't care how long it took for the Tar Heels to get a chance to cut down the nets on their home floor.

Eventually, the swarms of Carolina-blue clad fans would make their way back to their seats so North Carolina could celebrate the ACC championship it earned with an 81-67 win against arch-rival Duke to close the regular season.

But in the meantime, the Tar Heels were more than happy to soak up the scene.

"That was the happiest moment I've ever been a part of," Marshall said.

The freshman point guard had 15 points and 11 assists for the Tar Heels (24-6, 14-2 in the ACC), who went from five league wins a season ago to being conference champs for the third time in the past four seasons.

"He was the driving force behind all this," John Henson, who had 10 points and 12 rebounds, said of Marshall. "Without him, I don't think we would be here."

No. 13 Carolina, which finished the season perfect at home, played a near-flawless first half and avoided a collapse like the one they suffered against No. 4 Duke in Durham a month earlier.

Just like in that second half, when UNC squandered a double-digit lead, the Blue Devils (27-4, 13-3) relied on Nolan Smith and Seth Curry to carry the load.

And even though the duo accounted for 50 of Duke's 67 points this time, that wasn't enough to stop a Carolina squad that took care of the ball and shot 52.4 percent in the game.

The start of the second half was a little scary for UNC as Duke rattled off a quick seven points to slice into a 12-point halftime deficit.

"It was kind of like, 'Oh no.' That's what I said in my head," Henson said. "But all we needed was a couple of scores to stop that momentum."

Harrison Barnes, who led UNC with 18 points, provided the answer by scoring seven of the Heels' next nine points.

His next basket wouldn't come until 10 minutes later, but it was a slammed-home rebound of his own miss that made the crowd erupt as UNC started putting the finishing touches on the win.

Just as impressive as his offense was how Barnes shut down Duke's Kyle Singler for the second time this season.

Singler was 3 for 14 shooting, including 0 for 5 from 3-point range, and scored just eight points. Combined in two matchups against Barnes, Singler was 6 for 31.

"Any time you go against a great player like Kyle, you want to take it personally and play the best defense you can," Barnes said.

The Tar Heels shone was in the first half, when the first sign of success came from a lineup featuring three walk-on seniors: Daniel Bolick, Van Hatchell and D.J. Johnston.

The walk-ons, starting alongside Marshall and Justin Knox, quickly produced three hustle plays and a 3-0 lead before going to the bench with a standing ovation (as well as a chant of their nickname "Blue Steel").

Starting the three walk-ons was a gamble that paid off for UNC coach Roy Williams, who is now a perfect 23-0 on senior nights.

With Duke missing shots - the Blue Devils were 6 of 27 in the game from 3-point range, and all six makes belonged to Curry - Carolina got on the glass and turned those misfires into points at the other end.

The Heels ended up shooting nearly 58 percent by halftime, with Marshall making sure the Tar Heels were efficient and largely mistake-free.

Even though the second half wasn't as pretty as the first, Williams still said afterwards, "I've got no complaints about my guys." Even in victory, that's a rare sentiment for Carolina's coach to express.

But after enduring last season's 17 losses, as well as the unexpected loss of four players for this season, Williams wasn't in any position, or mood, to complain.

Just like his players on the court after the game, Williams was happy to enjoy the moment.

"The whole program is bigger than any individual, whether it's a coach or a player, and those kids have bought into that," Williams said. "It's been a marvelous, marvelous run. And I told them I was still hungry. I want a little bit more, too."


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