CHAPEL HILL – To say the Duke-North Carolina rivalry has lost its luster is an admission of ignorance.

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And after Sunday's clash between two of college basketball's greatest programs before a frenzied crowd of 21,750 at the Dean Smith Center, even the most uninformed would agree that when the Blue Devils and Tar Heels play, it makes for exciting theater.

Rashad McCants sank a 3-pointer and Jackie Manuel converted a fast-break layup 23 seconds later in a five-point spurt that gave UNC (16-14, 6-10 Atlantic Coast Conference) the lead for good at 77-72 with 48.9 seconds remaining. And after Duke senior Dahntay Jones' last-second made 3-pointer was waved off, Carolina's student body stormed the floor to celebrate the Heels' 82-79 victory.

"I'm really proud – to say the least – of our team," UNC coach Matt Doherty said. "We've been taking punches to the face all year and they've (Tar Heels) come off the mat each time. They came off the mat today and played a great game against a great opponent."

With the score tied at 72, McCants got the ball above the right side of the top of the key. Jones came out to defend him and McCants pump-faked. But when Jones surprisingly stepped back, McCants knew what to do.

"They were in a zone and I thought that Jones was going to come out and pressure me," McCants explained about the bucket. "But he kind of fell back and I hesitated at first, and he was way off, so I just shot it."

It was the Asheville freshman's last basket of the game and gave him 26 points on the day.

"I think tonight he was back to Rashad McCants of old," Doherty said. "His defense has gotten better and he was in the flow."

Noel said he saw an explosion from McCants coming.

"For one, Rashad never left," Noel said, referring to the statements that McCants was back. "Everybody has a little slump. At a level like this you're not going to play consistently every night. Rashad never left. Tonight he just came out and did his thing."

McCants said he was just ready to play.

"I've been feeling it for the last two weeks," McCants said. "I just started to be able to attack and not worry about who's guarding me or what kind of defense they are playing. I was just ready to play."

Yet perhaps more representative of UNC's effort and grit was the play of Raymond Felton. Felton finished the day with 18 points, 10 assists, eight rebounds, and three stitches in the left side of his mouth, and willed the Heels through some potentially tough stretches.

How about this as an example of Felton's effort:

With Carolina up 68-66 and 6:38 remaining, Felton, who drained a three 47 seconds earlier, rebounded his own missed short runner in the lane and put it back amongst Duke's trees for a 70-66 advantage. It was one of two offensive rebounds for the Latta, S.C. freshman, and was indicative of the Heels non-stop effort.

Calm, cool and collected, Felton also sank three of four free throws in the last 24 seconds to seal the deal.

"He's a warrior," Noel said about Felton. "He's a leader, and when he went back in (after his face was cut) he showed what kind of competitor he is. He doesn't want to lose any game, and definitely doesn't want to lose to Duke."

Despite the lower profile of recent Duke-Carolina games, there hasn't been any dip in intensity in the rivalry, something the players are aware of.

"We wanted to put it all out on the floor," Manuel said. "We didn't want to have any regrets. This is a big game, it's Duke-Carolina, we couldn't not do that."

The intensity generated a potentially frightening situation with 8:17 left in the game. With Felton on the floor near the Duke (21-6, 11-5) bench after suffering a large cut to his face, Doherty and some players walked over to see if he was all right.

Apparently Duke assistant coach Chris Collins said something to which Doherty took exception. Doherty and the coach then exchanged words and Duke reserve Andre Buckner came in and pushed Doherty, although the officials said they never saw a Duke player leave the bench.

After reviewing the video, the officials charged both teams with offsetting technical fouls and the game resumed.

"I don't know if anybody shoved me, we'll have to look at the tape," Doherty said. "I was checking on Raymond, but at the same time talking about how he got cut.

"Someone from their staff made a comment and things got a little heated. I respect their staff … They're competitive, but they are good guys."

Jawad Williams said it helped bring the Heels even closer together.

"It was very big," said Williams, who finished with 15 points and five rebounds. "You can either fight or run away, but we chose to stay in and fight and pulled out a victory."

The victory certainly won't cure the many ills of a disappointing season, but it does give the Tar Heels momentum, especially if they happen to face the Blue Devils in the first round of the ACC tournament on Friday in Greensboro.

Manuel said it gives UNC a clean slate, but with a twist.

"Yeah, we start a new season next week," said Manuel. "We just have to get ready for the ACC tournament – it's not going to be easy. We're going to have to play like we did today."

Jones led Duke with 22 points while freshman center Shelden Williams had 20 points and eight rebounds. J.J. Redick and Chris Duhon added 12 and 11 points, respectively for the Blue Devils.

Manuel added nine points for the Tar Heels while David Noel chipped in eight points with five rebounds, and Melvin Scott sank a pair of 3s for six points.

The first half saw the lead change hands 15 times as both teams were either nearly flawless offensively or inefficient defensively.

Duke, which assisted on nine of its 13 first-half field goals, got its baskets after penetration from the perimeter while UNC hit more mid-range jumpers, and benefited from McCants' ability to drive and score on Jones. McCants finished the first half with 14 points, and the Tar Heels shot 61.3 (19-31) percent from the field.

Carolina surged to its 42-36 halftime lead mainly by sending Duke into a slump to close out the half, holding the Blue Devils scoreless over the final 3:23 of the half, and turning a 36-35 deficit into the halftime margin.

And for the Tar Heels, this win certainly doesn't mend all of the season's wounds, but there isn't any better way for either team to head into postseason than with a win in this, the greatest rivalry in American sports.

Senior writer Andrew Jones is in his seventh year with Inside Carolina. He also covers the ACC for the Wilmington Star-News/Morning Star and can be reached via e-mail at: AndrewJones@AM630.net.

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