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March 13, 2011
By Bill Hass
GREENSBORO, N.C. - In the end, it was yet another triumph for a team that has an absolute passion about winning the ACC Tournament.
When Duke dispatched North Carolina 75-58 in Sunday's ACC Championship Game in the Greensboro Coliseum, the Blue Devils recorded their third straight title, their fifth in the last seven years and their 10th in the last 13.
To pull this one off, Duke had to find a way to contain the Tar Heels' sensational Harrison Barnes, who dropped 40 points on Clemson in a superb effort in the semifinals. The Blue Devils found the answer by executing a defense designed to make sure Barnes always had a body on him.
"We had a great game plan on how to defend him and it was a team defense assignment," said Kyle Singler, who took the brunt of the work. "When Barnes got by me I had great help (from the big men) and we were able to, especially in the first half, limit his shot attempts. And when he did shoot it, make sure it was a contested shot."
Singler kept himself between Barnes and the basket, denying him the ball as much as possible. Barnes rarely had a clean look at the hoop, missing his first five shots and hitting only 1-of-6 shots in the first half, when he never attempted a 3-pointer.
"When a player comes off a game like that," Singler said, "you've got to be aware of it because he's hot, he's probably more confident than usual. So in a way he's more dangerous. As a team you realize that and it helps you be more aware of where he is on the court."
In the second half, Barnes was able to shake free on some screens and added 13 points, but clearly wasn't the dominant force he was Saturday. He only grabbed two rebounds and had no assists, blocks or steals.
"They had a team-oriented defense around me," Barnes said, "a lot of switching on screens, a lot of making sure the bigs helped on my penetration. I should do a better job of finding my teammates and getting them more involved."
Duke guard Seth Curry, who rotated onto Barnes defensively a couple of times, said the idea was to make him work hard for everything.
"Tonight he hit some tough shots but he knew we were there every step of the way and he wasn't going to get anything easy," Curry said. "Kyle was ready to play. He came in with something to prove and he sent a message to them early in the game and carried that over."
The one chance Barnes had to ignite yet another UNC comeback came with 5:15 remaining, down by 10 points. The Tar Heels got out in transition and Kendall Marshall's pass found Barnes open in transition.
He squared up nicely behind the 3-point line, a shot he had buried most of the tournament. But this one missed, and Duke came back with a break of its own. Nolan Smith fed Ryan Kelly in the corner and Kelly swished a 3-pointer.
That was a six-point swing. Instead of UNC cutting the lead to seven points, it was down by 69-56 and that, essentially, was that.
"I just missed the shot," Barnes said. "Kendall found me in transition and I didn't make it."
Another part of Duke's defensive equation was the job Smith, who was named the ACC Tournament MVP, did in stopping Marshall, who scored just eight points (3-of-10 shooting). Marshall managed four assists but offset those with five turnovers.
"As much as Nolan did offensively," coach Mike Krzyzewski said, "I thought his defense made him MVP for the tournament. He had a bounce. We even showed him a couple of clips this morning of him just having a bounce and a spirit. We felt that he needed to do that again against Marshall, and he did that."
Carolina coach Roy Williams pointed out that the Tar Heels' two most important players, Marshall and Barnes, are freshmen who were defended by a pair of Duke seniors.
"We have some talent; we don't have a lot of experience," Williams said. "I think experienced talent today beat talent."
The most puzzling thing about Carolina's tournament performance was the way it fell behind by double digits in every game. The Tar Heels managed big comebacks to beat Miami and Clemson, but Duke knew how to close out a game.
"It was just when we crossed the city limits in Greensboro, we didn't realize the starting time of the game or something," Williams said.
Barnes was more to the point. He said he didn't believe his team played with the same passion as it did when it beat Duke last weekend in Chapel Hill to clinch the regular season championship.
"We didn't come out for the ACC Tournament the way we wanted to," he said. "First game, just barely got by. Second game, just barely got by. And today, same start but we weren't able to finish. We have to remember what it was like to see another team celebrate, and (realize) that could have been ours."
The fact that Duke celebrated was no coincidence. Winning the ACC is part of the culture instilled by Krzyzewski.
"I've been in this league for 31 years," he said. "I love our conference. I just feel that when you are part of something that's bigger than you, when you're in a tournament representing that conference, you should try to be at your best.
"We don't talk about the NCAA Tournament or anything like that. We just say `we want to win this tournament.' You can tell how happy we are. We've got to get on to the next thing here in a few hours, but it's an honor (to be ACC champions)."
The "next thing" for Duke is seeking a second straight national championship. The Blue Devils are the No. 1 seed in the West Region and will open play in Charlotte against Hampton. North Carolina begins the NCAA quest as the No. 2 seed in the East and will also open play in Charlotte, against Long Island.
"We've still got to be hungry," Singler said. "It was a nice to win this one but we've still got a lot to accomplish."
Whatever those accomplishments might be, Singler, along with Smith, will be in the forefront of making them happen. He still isn't shooting the ball consistently well (5-of-14 Sunday) but he added eight rebounds and his defense is a constant.
"Kyle is just so important to us," Kelly said. "People don't even realize that most of the time we stick Kyle on the (opponent's) best player. He does an unbelievable job taking them out of their comfort zone. That doesn't always mean they're not going to score points, but it's making shots more difficult.
"I think at times when people said he wasn't scoring the ball as well, it was because he was playing so hard on defense and that sometimes your rhythm is off a little bit on the offensive end."
Singler said he doesn't pay much attention to criticism of his shooting.
"I know my shooting hasn't been there and whatnot," he said, "but I'm always going to play hard and compete and help my team win. That's pretty much all I can do."
And in the 58th ACC Tournament, that was plenty.
Bill Hass is a long-time observer of ACC sports. His career at the Greensboro News & Record spanned 36 years, from 1969 until his retirement in March 2006. He is now writing "Bill Hass on the ACC" for theACC.com. His weekly columns will keep fans plugged in to the Atlantic Coast Conference.
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