CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — The shots kept clanging off the rim – open look after open look – yet Mike Krzyzewski repeatedly told his Duke players not to get frustrated. Eventually, he told them, the shots would fall.
Once they did, the eighth-ranked Blue Devils grabbed control against their fiercest rival.
Jon Scheyer scored 24 points and Duke pulled away in the final minutes to beat North Carolina 64-54 on Wednesday night, snapping a three-game losing streak in the series.
Kyle Singler added 19 points for the Blue Devils (20-4, 8-2 Atlantic Coast Conference), who shot poorly all night. But boasting a bigger and tougher front line than in years past, Duke dominated the boards and got plenty of extra looks to make up for all those misses.
It wasn't pretty offensive basketball for either team, with few transition chances and both teams working for open looks in a game that turned into a halfcourt tussle. It was the lowest-scoring game in the series since Duke's 60-48 win in the 2002 ACC tournament.
"I thought it was a gritty performance," Krzyzewski said. "The ball was not going in and they blocked a lot of shots. ... For us to keep up our defense and rebounding when the ball wasn't going in the basket was a big thing."
The Blue Devils had lost six of seven meetings during a stretch that seemed to signal a shift in power between the programs back to the light blue in Chapel Hill. North Carolina (13-11, 2-7) has won two national championships, including last year in Detroit, since Duke last went to a Final Four in 2004.
Making things more satisfying for Duke, this win came on a night when the Tar Heels retired the No. 50 jersey of four-year star Tyler Hansbrough, who graduated as the storied program's leading scorer and rebounder and the top scorer in ACC history.
"It just sucks losing to these guys," said Nolan Smith, who managed 10 points on 4 for 14 shooting. "To do it the amount of games we did in a row, and now to finally get this win, it feels great. We played a great game and hopefully we can start this stretch of us winning games against them."
Much like that low-scoring game in '02, this loss only added to the Tar Heels' misery in a season that is slipping away. North Carolina has lost eight of 10, including four in a row overall to fall near the bottom of the league standings.
The Tar Heels shot a season-low 35 percent and finished with its lowest point total in seven years under Roy Williams.
"We were right there and there's been a lot of games where we've been right there and one stretch made it worse than it was," said Will Graves, who had a team-high 13 points. "I don't take a moral victory from it. We've got to keep coming back to work."
The rivalry game might have lost some luster this time around due to North Carolina's struggles and Duke looking like a good, but hardly great, team. Still, this one ended up fitting right in with college basketball's fiercest rivalry, with neither team leading by more than six in the first 30 minutes and going into the final eight minutes tied before the Blue Devils took control.
Duke hit nine 3-pointers, but shot 32 percent overall and went 13 for 51 (25 percent) from inside the arc. The Blue Devils helped themselves, however, by finishing with a 51-42 rebounding advantage and converting 23 offensive rebounds into 21 second-chance points.
The Tar Heels played with plenty of defensive intensity and focus much of the night, getting six blocked shots from Ed Davis and four more from freshman John Henson. They even led 43-39 on a transition layup from Dexter Strickland with about 12 minutes left to send the packed house in the Smith Center into a furious roar.
But the Blue Devils – despite their road struggles this season – never looked rattled.
"You just need big plays, especially on the road," Scheyer said. "Coach said the whole game, 'Don't worry about missing shots. Just keep shooting,' and that's what we were going to do."
In an example of how the Blue Devils persevered all night, Duke went ahead for good when freshman Mason Plumlee grabbed an offensive rebound and threw down a reverse dunk to make it 47-45. Scheyer followed with a tough basket in the lane over Marcus Ginyard, then came through with a contested 3 against Ginyard that took momentum right back after Graves' 3 on the previous possession.
When Smith scored a transition layup to push the lead to 54-48 with 4:34 left, the Blue Devils finally had the working margin they needed. By the time Scheyer knocked down a 3 over Ginyard to beat the shot clock and give Duke a 59-50 lead with 2 1/2 minutes left, Duke had essentially closed the door on the Tar Heels.
"I thought we had the intensity the first 30 minutes that we needed and should have had the whole season," Williams said. "After that ... they seemed hungrier to get (to the boards) and we just didn't go a good job of boxing out or chasing the ball."
Duke played much of the night without forward Lance Thomas, who appeared to injure his right knee in a collision with Larry Drew II with about 17 minutes left. Krzyzewski said the extent of the injury was unclear.