DURHAM, N.C. -- I was waiting all night for this, that infamous feeling of claustrophobia and hazy danger only Cameron Indoor Stadium can provide.
The second where I thought I might face actual injury came with 1:18 remaining.
Duke's Grayson Allen hit a 3, my chair rattled, the bleachers joggled and the blue-human blob-wall of hysteria threatened to avalanche onto press row. Dried-up blue paint flickered onto my laptop, and the roar seemingly shook Cameron. I looked across the court and saw J.J. Redick in a white T-shirt, looking way calmer than was reasonable. He knows the noise, though. Many times, he was the reason for it. And I would've looked up to the ceiling to confirm the shaking , but I had a roof of arms inches from my head. It was a hot, sweaty smother.
Where else would I rather be? This was my first trip to Cameron Indoor Stadium, and the game -- an 86-78 Blue Devils victory -- and rivalry exceeded assumptions and predictions.
Cameron burst to a blare of exuberance on that Allen triple, his seventh of the game, putting Duke up 75-70 and effectively sealing another amazing iteration in the Duke-North Carolina rivalry. It also served as the shining example of what Duke can be when Duke plays like how we thought Duke would play from the beginning of the season.
Now it's mid-February. It's past speculation time. The team we saw on Thursday night is the team -- if it can remain fully intact, fully healthy -- that will tantalize us into March. Duke hasn't been great often, but when it's cleared that bar, it's looked too good to dismiss. We cannot quit Duke because we see visions of what was promised. We now know that when Duke plays at its best, Duke can still be the best team in the country. Yes, Duke had the home floor and UNC was missing a pivotal starter, Isaiah Hicks, but the game was smoothly played and mostly well-officiated. Duke had not had a game this season like what it put on in its win over UNC, and because the opponent might be even better, the win means all the more.
It's the first win for Duke against a top-level ACC team, and the first time in five games the program beat a top-10-ranked team. Thursday's thriller had 17 lead changes and nine ties. Duke's biggest margin was its final one: eight. It fell short of a classic, but it still qualified as one of the 10 best games in college hoops so far this season.
Most importantly for Duke, the victory gives credibility to its four-game winning streak. It sets up the push to the next month of college basketball, when the pieces are hard to place as the seed lines change almost daily. Still, no one knows what to make of Duke. Is this a top-five team, or is it fated to falter again? Drama has tailed this team like a leopard since October.
And still, it's hard to see many other squads beating the Blue Devils if they're able to replicate what they did to Carolina. Allen had a game-high 25 points. Luke Kennard, who is still this team's most valuable player, deftly put 20 on the board.
With this performance, Allen has been widely cheered for putting up one of the best games of his career, but the most important thing to transpire for Duke on Thursday night was Tatum's second-half coming of age. After looking out of place (zero points on three shots) in the first 20 minutes, Tatum put 19 points on the board and finished with nine rebounds. Afterward, he told me this felt like the team's most complete game of the season.
The way Duke held on, after Allen fouled out with 1:02 to go, was emphatic. Tatum and Jackson -- freshmen -- kept Duke above board. Allen had as much joy on his face, watching his teammates finish off UNC, as I've seen from him this season, I think.
The team's behavior in the Duke locker room afterward is what's lingering for me as well. Happiness but not jubilation. We're approaching the middle of February. Winning in the way they did against an archrival, you couldn't fault the Blue Devils players if they were completely over the moon. But it was more "OK, that was really good, but it's done." A lot of measured confidence. A lot of feeling like the group is finally jelling. Maybe this is the charge, not the change.
"Maturity is a hell of a thing," Mike Krzyzewski said. "And when you do something really well, you want to stay in that moment for just a little bit, because it's so big. But in this game, and because of how quick they push it, they don't let you. So that's a good lesson for us. When we lost the lead, when they took the lead doing that, the game could've been over. And instead, our team got really tough. We're fortunate to win, I think we earned it."
Duke has won five of its last six against Carolina.
I really resist the notion that Thursday night signaled the "turning point" for Duke. People said and wrote that after the Florida win in December, the Miami win on Jan. 21 and the come-from-behind Kennard extravaganza at Wake Forest nearly two weeks ago. At a certain stage, so many turning points only put you back where you started. That in mind, there probably won't be a turning point for this team. There will only be progress or regress. Right now, progress is winning out.
"We've had more interruptions than six teams," Krzyzewski said. "No excuses, that's just the way it is. Now we're coming together."
"We'll show the maturity of our team by how we play on Saturday," he said.
Krzyzewski likened it to the NCAA Tournament, a reference he no doubt used with intent. Duke's next game comes Saturday at 1 p.m. against Clemson. The turnaround is akin to having a late tip in the tournament, then getting the earlier game on that Saturday afterward.
"This game, Roy knows it, too," Krzyzewski said, "win so close it can give you a loss right after, because there's so much attention. This was, both these teams played so well tonight. It takes a lot out of you. Just the fact we played well against a great team."
It was some of the best, most urgent basketball you could seek, or see, in February.
Duke closed out its game on Thursday by doing what UNC failed to do: making a lot of free throws. The Blue Devils' final six points came off freebies. As the seconds wound down and the win was coming to fruition, veteran scribes were packing up their computers and squeezing their way off press row.
Wow, that fast?
Yeah. Because the players were coming over to slap hands with the Crazies. I fumbled to get out of my dilapidated chair, hurriedly unplugged my laptop and failed to pack up my bag. I was holding all of stuff against my chest, like a sloppy thief trying to sprint out of a shoplifting heist at a grocery store.
Before I knew it, the game was over. Jefferson, playing his final home game against Carolina, was screaming in thanks at the student section. I tried to get out. I turned left.
"Nope," a blue-faced, blond-haired student told me. She shook her head forcefully. It wasn't defiant; it's just how it was now.
"You're done," she said. "It's too late. You have to stay."
And then the crunch came.