"I definitely feel like we're getting to where we should be," said Reyshawn Terry, who finished with 15 points and eight rebounds. "It's crunch time now, and we can't afford any setbacks."
Carolina – the ACC's best rebounding team – won the battle of the boards, 38-35, after being out-rebounded in two previous losses at Maryland and Georgia Tech.
"We've been talking for a couple days now about really getting back to our principles," said Marcus Ginyard, who chipped in 13 points off the bench. "We talked about toughness a couple days ago and defined toughness as not letting other teams take us out of what we do."
A 10-0 run set the early pace as Carolina jumped out to a 12-2 lead, and held a 13-point advantage just before halftime. The Blue Devils got to within two points with 12:51 remaining in the game, but an 18-4 UNC onslaught made it 68-52 with just over five minutes left.
The win marked the Tar Heels' first regular-season sweep of the Blue Devils since they accomplished the feat three-straight years from 1993-1996. UNC has won four of the last five meetings and leads the all-time series, 127-96.
Yet with the game's outcome long-since decided, a drama unfolded that will be talked about for years to come in this storied rivalry.
Hansbrough had to leave with 14.5 seconds to play, after he received a frustration-filled elbow from Duke's Gerald Henderson. Bleeding profusely from the nose, Hansbrough was escorted to the UNC locker room for treatment.
After reviewing the play on courtside TV monitors, officials ejected Henderson to the roaring approval of the Smith Center crowd.
"I feel badly for Tyler and we apologize, but there was no intent," Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. "It's unfortunate that those people were in the game. I'm not blaming anybody, but we both should have probably had our walk-ons in.
"I know [Henderson] didn't do that on purpose. Did [Hansbrough] get hit? Yes. You never want to see that."
The scene brought back memories of the infamous 1992 contest against Duke, when Eric Montross suffered lacerations across his face and the back of his head.
Roy Williams bristled when told Krzyzewski may have suggested Hansbrough shouldn't have been in the game at the time.
"I don't understand that," Williams said. "I don't even know how much time was left when it happened; and, in fact, we had a substitute up (to go in the game).
"It's not my fault that Tyler got the offensive rebound and somebody else missed the (free throw)."
The three referees issued a release after the game, which read: "By rule, this is a flagrant foul for combative and confrontational action. It is ruled a fight. By rule, it is an automatic ejection. By NCAA rule, [Henderson] must sit out next game."
"I was not trying to hurt or hit the kid," Henderson said of his blow on Hansbrough. "Obviously it was a foul."
When asked if he planned to apologize to Hansbrough or Williams, Henderson replied, "I didn't get a chance yet, but if I cross them I will."
The pre-game stars were aligned for Carolina this weekend. Improbable upsets of Virginia (by Wake Forest) and Virginia Tech (by Clemson), the Tar Heels simply needed to take care of their own business to become conference co-champs and secure the top seed going into next week's ACC Tournament.
"Somebody told me that Wake Forest had beaten Virginia, and I said it makes no difference - we still have to play," Williams said. "If the team knew that it was first place or fifth place - I didn't say anything about that."
UNC (25-6, 11-5 ACC) finished tied with the Cavs atop the league standings, but gets the optimum positioning for the tournament via a 79-69 win over UVa on Jan. 10. The two teams met only once during the regular season.
Williams evened his Carolina record versus Krzyzewski to 4-4, as under his reign, the Tar Heels have yet to suffer through a three-game losing streak. Williams went 1-3 against Duke while coaching at Kansas.
Duke (22-10, 8-8) finished seventh in the final conference standings.
Carolina will face the Clemson/Florida State winner Friday at noon in the quarterfinals of the ACC Tournament in Tampa, Fla.