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March 5, 2011Duke.
Atlantic Coast Conference regular season championship on the line.
Not a whole lot more needs to be said, but UNC's players had an opportunity Friday to speak to reporters, and they talked about the privilege of getting to play in such a huge ball game.
"We're very excited. We've worked all year to get to this point, and now we're here, being able to play in front of our home crowd, being able to play against Duke---a rivalry game," said freshman Harrison Barnes, whose three-pointer in the final seconds led UNC to a victory at Florida State three nights ago that set up the winner-take all finale.
"It's Carolina-Duke. The rivalry, everything that it stands for---you've got to enjoy playing in these games and just love the moment," added freshman point guard Kendall Marshall.
"We've come a long ways and we've learned a lot," said junior big man Tyler Zeller.
"It's very exciting. It's something we've been working for all year, and we didn't know if we'd be able to put ourselves in this situation, but we just kept playing and playing," Zeller added.
Clearly it doesn't get any bigger than this in terms of a regular season game with the conference championship, the No. 1 seed in next week's ACC Tournament and more favorable positioning for the NCAA Tournament all on the line.
"Just coming after last year---the team finishing at the bottom of the ACC," said Barnes, "And then for us to do a complete 360 and for us to have a chance to hang a banner up---Coach is always talking about how great it feels to hang banners and how much success that brings to the program."
"For us to have that opportunity (Saturday), it's almost hard to fathom," Barnes added.
"It's a great feeling. It's one of those that we're happy to be in this situation, but hopefully we'll be even happier if we can find a way to win the game," added Zeller.
"It's one of those things that we've been preparing for all year, so it comes down to one game."
For those younger UNC players who weren't part of Carolina's 2009 NCAA championship squad, this is clearly the most important game so far of their brief collegiate careers.
"It's probably the biggest game to date in my career, so I'm ready for it," said sophomore John Henson.
"I think it's going to be a big game for both programs. It is for the ACC championship---it's for a banner, a ring, all that---so I think both teams are going to be ready."
"It would be the most important win in my career up to this point," added Marshall.
"You know, I don't think a high school state championship or (playing in the McDonalds) All-American Game, I don't think any of that compares to winning a championship at the college level."
"Without a doubt my hands are sweating thinking about it. I'm excited," Marshall continued. "As a basketball player you live for these moments, and you love to play in these moments."
As it turned out, the Tar Heels had to run the table after its loss in early February to Duke to put themselves in this situation, but the team has continued to progress exponentially over that period and find themselves in good shape heading into the postseason.
"Coach told us early in the season that if we kept fighting and growing as a team that our potential was great, and we bought in. I'm a little surprised to see where we are, but not much," said Marshall.
"I don't know if it's a surprise, but it's something we've worked for. We never looked ahead and finally we're here," added Henson.
"It's shaping up nicely (for the postseason). We've just got to come in there (Saturday night) and be ready to perform."
"When we lost there (at Duke), Coach told us if we win every game from here on out we'd have a chance to be there (play them again for the league title), and we've done that," said Barnes.
"Now all we've got to do is just go out there and play."
After having to deal with the hostility of playing in the unique environment of Duke's Cameron Indoor Stadium, the Tar Heels will have the benefit this time around of the Smith Center faithful---22,000 strong cheering for the light blue.
"I think it's going to help us a lot (playing at home)," said Henson.
"I think there's a lot of things going on (in that environment), but I'm just focused on the court and the game at hand, playing hard for 40 minutes, and we'll see what happens."
"It's always good to play in front of your home crowd and having them cheer you on. I think it affects the away team as much as it does the home team," Henson added.
"It's hard for me to imagine it (what Saturday's atmosphere will be like), never playing in an ACC regular season championship game moment, but I'm looking forward to it," added Marshall.
"I'm excited. It doesn't get much better than this at the regular season level, and I just want to make the best of it."
The fact that the game is for the regular season ACC title is obviously the key storyline heading into tonight's contest, but clearly it's a chance for both of these teams to get better heading into the postseason.
"I think a game like this makes everybody better going into the NCAA Tournament," said Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski. "This is a big-time game for both teams, and playing in games like these makes you better."
"(We're looking for) momentum to go very deep in the tournament," said Barnes.
"This is one of the best teams in the country we're playing tomorrow. There's a lot at stake, but just to be able to win this game---especially since we lost to them earlier---it would be huge for us."
In the end, Carolina couldn't have asked for any more than this---at home against the arch-rivals, a team they know they can beat---with a championship hanging in the balance.
"That's the goal we wanted at the beginning of the season. We knew it would come down to March 5---us playing against Duke here (in the Smith Center) for hopefully the ACC championship," said Barnes.
"You've got to respect them (Duke)," added Henson. "They did win a (National) championship last year, and they're a tough team to beat. I think we're going to have to play one of our best games to beat them, and hopefully we can get it done."