DURHAM, N.C. -- There were less than two minutes to play in Wednesday night's Tobacco Road clash between No. 5 North Carolina and No. 16 Duke at Cameron Indoor Stadium, and Tar Heels point guard Ty Lawson dribbled the basketball near the 3-point line as the 35-second shot clock ran down.
North Carolina led 67-63, after having rallied from a 10-point deficit and taking its first lead (at 62-60) with 5:15 to go. Instead of putting the basketball in forward Tyler Hansbrough's hands, or giving it to forward Reyshawn Terry -- one of two North Carolina seniors on the floor -- Tar Heels coach Roy Williams wanted his team to clear out the right side for Lawson to penetrate the basket.
When the shot clock hit eight seconds, Lawson dribbled right and blew past Duke point guard Greg Paulus, who fouled Lawson as he completed a layup. Lawson made the ensuing foul shot, putting the Tar Heels ahead for good at 70-63 with 1:45 left.
The Blue Devils got as close as four points three times in the final seconds, but North Carolina made seven foul shots in the final 30.3 seconds to suck the life out of a sold-out crowd of 9,314.
Lawson, one of three freshman starters for North Carolina, finished with 15 points, eight rebounds and four assists, and never seemed overwhelmed by playing in one of college basketball's most intense rivalries. Nor did he (or his peers) seem anxious about playing in one of the sport's most intimidating arenas.
"It's tough for a freshman to play at Cameron," said Hansbrough, who scored 16 points on 5-for-9 shooting. "It's hard to block out everything else. But they did a great job of coming in and focusing on their games."
If Williams had any concerns about taking such a young team into the NCAA Tournament, the Tar Heels might have eased his anxiety against the Blue Devils. The three freshman starters -- Lawson, forward Brandan Wright and guard Wayne Ellington -- combined to score 38 points on 17-for-32 shooting.
Wright, a 6-foot-9 native of Nashville, is playing more and more like a potential NBA lottery pick -- after this season. Wright led the Tar Heels with 19 points and had nine rebounds in 24 minutes, scoring three baskets down the stretch when the game was still in doubt.
Wright was especially effective against Duke after sophomore forward Josh McRoberts picked up his fourth foul with 11:48 to play. Wright scored on a layup to tie the score at 54, and tied it again at 58 on a hook shot.
"He's a big body and a really talented guy," Wright said of McRoberts. "When he got his fourth foul, things started to open up in the lane. They lost their best shot-blocker."
The Blue Devils never tried to double-down on Wright, as Hansbrough's expanding ability to shoot mid-range jumpers prevented them from doing so.
"I had high expectations coming into this game for myself," said Wright, the Tar Heels' second-leading scorer with 15 points per game. "I got a lot of open shots and knocked them down. I just had to step up. One on one coverage, I always think I have the advantage."
Wright received less attention from the Blue Devils because they were focused on stopping Hansbrough. The sophomore became frustrated early in the first half, when Duke defended him with two or three players every time he touched the basketball in the paint.
With Duke leading 21-12 with about 12 minutes to play in the first half, Hansbrough was trapped under the basket, fell to the floor and struggled to keep the ball. He managed to call timeout, but left the floor with a cut above his left eye.
"I think they threw a lot of guys at me down low and played me physical," Hansbrough said. "That's fine with me. I've seen it 100 times. It was a physical game."
So physical that Williams seemed intent playing fewer players because he worried the rest of North Carolina's freshmen might be overwhelmed by the intensity. Ellington played 18 minutes -- only five in the second half -- and was replaced in the rotation by senior Wes Miller and sophomore Bobby Frasor, who had played in the uncomfortable confines of Cameron Indoor Stadium before. Freshman Deon Thompson played only eight minutes, and rookie Alex Stephenson played four.
Going with a more experienced rotation worked for Williams late in the game. Miller knocked down a 3-pointer that pulled the Tar Heels back to within 52-50 after the Blue Devils went ahead by five points with 12½ minutes to go.
"It's a physical game," Miller said. "It's always a physical game over here. It's never an easy game. It's always a dogfight out there when these two schools get together."
And for now, at least, the Tar Heels are a better breed. They rebounded from an 83-79 loss at rival NC State last Saturday and improved to 7-2 in the ACC standings, a half-game behind surprising Boston College and Virginia.
"I was extremely impressed with how competitive our team was, especially when you compare it to what we did last Saturday," Williams said. "We were down 10 a couple of times and I told our guys that if we keep attacking, we would be there at the end, and I really felt that way."
Meantime, the Blue Devils continued to struggle, losing a third consecutive game in the same regular season for the first time since 1994-95, when coach Mike Krzyzewski missed the last 19 games of the season after undergoing back surgery. The Blue Devils finished 13-18 that season, the last time they failed to make the NCAA Tournament.
"We played a lot better tonight," said Krzyzewski, whose team had lost its previous two games against Virginia and Florida State by a combined three points. "We played well tonight. We can't get down. If we get down, then we're idiots and we're not deserving of winning.
"Our kids responded well from two gut-wrenching losses. Now, we've got to respond from losing a game where we gave this type of effort. If we don't do that, then we're not Duke."
Krzyzewski benched two of his team's tri-captains -- junior guard DeMarcus Nelson and McRoberts -- and started freshmen Gerald Henderson and Brian Zoubek. The lineup change worked early in the game, as the Blue Devils jumped out to a 13-6 lead with three freshmen and two sophomores on the floor.
Freshman Jon Scheyer hurt the Tar Heels most, scoring 26 points on 8-for-18 shooting.
McRoberts and Nelson sat for about 3½ minutes and went into the game with 16:21 to play in the half. McRoberts finished with six points and 11 rebounds. Nelson scored 12 points on 5-for-6 shooting, but never got in rhythm with Terry smothering him throughout the contest.
"We'll look at anything," Krzyzewski said of his lineup changes. "We're looking to get better."
On Wednesday night, for only the fifth time in the schools' last 21 meetings, North Carolina was better than Duke. Krzyzewski and the Blue Devils, though, went down swinging.
"I don't think we lost because of exhaustion," Krzyzewski said. "I really don't. I would tell you if I did. Even at the end, we're right there. You've got to play like that. You can't pick your rounds to fight in a game like this. You've got to fight all the rounds."
Mark Schlabach covers college football and men's college basketball for ESPN.com. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.