Tyler Thornton, in action during the 2011-12 season

CAMERON INDOOR STADIUM/DURHAM—The war of attrition played out in two distinct parts in tonight’s Tobacco Road clash between the No. 2 Duke Blue Devils and the UNC Tar Heels (16-8, 6-5). In the first half, Roy Williams’ boys looked sharp, and played aggresively on the defensive end, causing three Duke turnovers in the first two minutes and harassing Duke’s Mason Plumlee in the paint. Dexter Strickland penetrated himself into a couple of tender layups, while P.J. Hairston out-muscled and out-jumped everyone on Duke’s squad, attracting attention and creating extra space for Reggie Bullock to knock down open jumpers.

A Tyler Thornton three-pointer sent Duke on a surge early in the second half, followed by another long-range three from Seth Curry—giving the Blue Devils a 42-41 lead. Seven minutes into the half, Quinn Cook spotted Rasheed Sulaimon craving for a wide-open three-pointer from in front of Duke’s bench, the two connected and Sulaimon put the Blue Devils up by four points. For the rest of the game, Duke kept a small lead over the Tar Heels and dangled it in front of them, rendering the entire team helpless. James McAdoo fell for the same ole Plumlee hook shot, Hairston played waywardly and Bullock’s efforts were waifish at best, despite his 15 points.

No, this Duke/ UNC go-round wasn’t a game for the ages. There were no buzzer-beaters, heated exchanges, stunning dunks (OK, maybe McAdoo’s reverse two-hander qualifies), injuries, confetti or back-flips. The craziest thing that happened was when a Cameron Crazie protested a referee’s call by throwing a plastic hand clapper on the court. I thought it was one of those curly crazy straws. Crazy, right?

Duke stole this game from UNC and the only thing worth talking about was the game’s unlikely hero, Tyler Thornton, who scored nine points on 3-4 shooting in some key moments. Later, Coach K complimented Thornton’s toughness.

“I like him because he can get angry. I don’t think players get angry like they used to…” he said. “If anger destroys something bad, it’s good. If it destroys some good than it’s bad. His anger, his competitiveness was really good for us tonight and it has been overall.” The Tar Heels could learn a lot from this. Their rival stole the biggest game of the year right out of their hands, right in front of Governor Pat McCrory. Maybe “The North Carolina Comeback” is a sham after all.

Next, Duke heads to Maryland to play theTerrapins for second time this year and the last time as long-standing ACC rivals before Maryland heads to the Big 10 Conference. Judging from their last meeting, the Blue Devils should be able to give Maryland the valedictory boot they probably deserve.

Click here for the Duke/UNC box score.