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P.J. Hairston scores 23 but can't keep North Carolina from losing to No. 2 Duke, 73-68

  • Duke's Rasheed Sulaimon, right, guards North Carolina's P.J. Hairston (15) during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game in Durham, N.C., Wednesday, Feb. 13, 2013. Duke won 73-68. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)The Associated Press

  • Duke's Tyler Thornton, right, guards North Carolina's Reggie Bullock (35) during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game in Durham, N.C., Wednesday, Feb. 13, 2013. Duke won 73-68. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)The Associated Press

  • North Carolina coach Roy Williams kneels against the scorers table late in the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Duke in Durham, N.C., Wednesday, Feb. 13, 2013. Duke won 73-68. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)The Associated Press

North Carolina came into Cameron Indoor Stadium and once again ran out to a big early lead.

The Tar Heels just couldn't make it stand up for an entire game — despite the best efforts of the newest face in the starting lineup.

P.J. Hairston matched a career high with 23 points in his second career start for North Carolina in a 73-68 loss to No. 2 Duke on Wednesday night.

And after the Tar Heels (16-8, 6-5 Atlantic Coast Conference) were humiliated in a 26-point loss at No. 3 Miami in their previous game, they had to be encouraged by the way they scrapped against the Blue Devils from start to finish. UNC led for the first 26 minutes of this one.

"I hope they realize how much they invested and that it was also a battle," coach Roy Williams said. "It is still a loss (and) I am not into moral victories. It was there for the taking. They invested more and got more out of it."

The Tar Heels will rue their performance from the free throw line. They finished 13 of 23 and missed seven of 10 during a critical late stretch while falling to 1-4 this season against ranked opponents.

"If I knew how to fix the blessed thing, I would have fixed it," Williams said of his team's struggles at the line. "The bottom line is, we didn't make free throws today. We're not a good free throw shooting team in games."

Mason Plumlee had 18 points and 11 rebounds, while Quinn Cook scored 18 and Rasheed Sulaimon added 13 for the Blue Devils (22-2, 9-2).

Tyler Thornton finished with nine points on three 3-pointers — or, as many points as he had in his previous three games combined — and two of those 3s came during the run midway through the second half that completely flipped the game's momentum.

"It's just the heart and the will to want to win," Thornton said. "Especially coming down the stretch, you've got to go all out and leave it on the floor, and I think we did that."

Duke shot 44 percent — 52 percent after halftime — and erased a slow start with that timely run to win its sixth straight this season and sixth in eight meetings in college basketball's fiercest rivalry.

Reggie Bullock had 15 points with four 3-pointers for North Carolina.

The Tar Heels trailed just 65-61 in the final minute and appeared to have made a stop by forcing Thornton to miss a long 3-pointer with the shot clock winding down. But Bullock fouled Sulaimon on the rebound, and the freshman hit both free throws with 37.5 seconds left.

Hairston hit a free throw on North Carolina's next possession to cut it to 67-62, but Plumlee countered with two free throws with 30.3 seconds left to make it a three-possession game.

Seth Curry scored 11 points in his sixth straight double-figure performance against North Carolina.

An unorthodox move — putting one of the best big men in the nation on the bench, however briefly — wound up putting Duke ahead for the first time in this one.

Plumlee picked up his third foul 31 seconds into the second half and uncorked an untimely 20-foot jumper a few minutes later, prompting Krzyzewski to burn a timeout. He went to a smaller lineup, sitting Plumlee in favor of two power forwards, Amile Jefferson and Josh Hairston.

The move freed up some space for the Duke guards and immediately led to six quick points to start the 19-7 run that put the Blue Devils ahead to stay.

Duke outscored North Carolina 11-3 during the 4-minute stretch with Plumlee on the bench and took their first lead when Curry swished a 3 from in front of the bench to make it 42-41 with 14 minutes left.

Thornton — who had missed 12 of 14 3-pointers during his previous eight games — hit two of them from the same spot in the right corner, capping the spurt with his second that made it 50-45 with 12½ minutes to go.

Curry eventually stretched the lead to 59-51 with another 3 with 5 minutes left.

"They started knocking down shots in the second half, open 3-pointers," Bullock said. "I think our team played great. We played with better sense of urgency, we played with better effort, we were more involved in the game and what's happening. But they started knocking down shots and they started gaining momentum, and we weren't connecting when we were open."

Dexter Strickland added 14 points but James Michael McAdoo was held to nine on 4-of-12 shooting for North Carolina.

The Tar Heels were aggressive early and methodically built a double-figure lead, the third straight year they came into Cameron and went up by 10. Bullock's third 3 of the half with about 6:45 left put North Carolina up 28-18.