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Jeff Eisenberg

Even in defeat, North Carolina shows how far it has come

Jeff Eisenberg
The Dagger

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Once the disappointment of coughing up a 14-point halftime lead fades and North Carolina can evaluate its 79-73 loss at Duke with more perspective, the Tar Heels may look back with pride at what they accomplished.

They pushed the Blue Devils to the brink on their home floor, a testament to the progress the Tar Heels have made since their previous trip to Cameron Indoor Stadium resulted in an 82-50 throttling last March.

For a few fleeting moments late in the first half, Duke was on its heels, the Cameron Crazies were shell-shocked and North Carolina looked like a team capable of making a Final Four run.

Kendall Marshall attacked off the dribble and fed his teammates for easy buckets. John Henson and Tyler Zeller dominated the paint and the glass. And the defense produced enough stops to fuel the vaunted fast break and generate plenty of easy buckets.

Sustaining that level of play for 40 minutes proved to be too great a challenge for the inexperienced Tar Heels, especially on the road against a team as talented and resilient as Duke.

Nolan Smith and Seth Curry exploited a North Carolina perimeter defense hurt by the abrupt transfer of top defender Larry Drew II. The Tar Heels failed to stop Duke consistently enough to spark their fast break. And they also didn't exploit their edge in the paint consistently enough.

If the second half was a back-to-reality moment for the Tar Heels, keeping the outcome in doubt into the final two minutes was validation for a team that has shed the underachiever label and emerged as Duke's top ACC challenger. North Carolina had won 9 of 10 entering Wednesday's game, buoyed by the recent improvement of freshman Harrison Barnes and by the success of Marshall since taking over as starting point guard.

The most exciting aspect about the Tar Heels is that their day-to-day improvement is visible and their room for growth is as great as any NCAA tournament-bound team except for perhaps Kentucky.

If Marshall continues to impress, Barnes continues to improve and they shore up the perimeter defense, this is a team that could avenge its loss to Duke in Chapel Hill next month and then make a second-week NCAA tournament run.

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