note: This story originally ran in March, 2017. We are reposting in honor of the ongoing series.
Say what you want about Bears vs Packers, Yankees-Red Sox, or Michigan and Ohio State. They’ve got nothing on Duke – North Carolina. A rivalry truly has meaning when both teams are at the top of their sports. The Bears have been mediocre at best for the past twenty years, with a single Super Bowl appearance.
There is a whole state, Connecticut, separating New York and Boston, and 191 miles between Ann Arbor and Columbus. But only eight measly miles is the distance from Durham to Chapel Hill. Tar Heel and Duke fans live and work side by side, and this rivalry exists 365 days a year. The two schools have been competing in basketball since 1920.
ESPN broadcaster Dick Vitale, states in the forward to Art Chansky’s Blue Blood Duke – Carolina: Inside The Most Storied Rivalry In College Hoops, “There is no keener competition anywhere, than between these two roundball giants. When one of them wins the ACC Championship, it means they’re automatically a favorite for the national championship. There’s nothing better than Duke-Carolina, because it is the only one [rivalry] that has what I call the three P’s: Power, Passion, and Proximity.”
The real rivalry as we know it today began in earnest when Duke’s Art Heyman and UNC’s Larry Brown got into a brawl late in a game in 1961. Things lost their luster a bit in the 1970’s as the Tar Heels bigger foe became David Thompson and his NC State Wolfpack. However, one of the most remarkable contests in the series occurred in 1974, when freshman Walter Davis led a furious comeback which saw UNC score 8 points in seventeen seconds. Davis told ESPN.com, “Coach Smith calls a timeout and says, ‘We can win this game. Bobby is going to make these free throws, we’re going to put a trap on them and get a steal and score quickly.’
“And that’s what happened. We called timeout again and we got another steal and scored. We’re down by two. They get the ball in and we foul right away. [Pete Kramer] missed the front end of a one-and-one. We get the rebound and call a timeout. Coach Smith designed a play. It was like a down-and-out football pattern. I started on the right side and just came right across the half-court line and Mitch Kupchak hit me with a perfect pass. I took two or three dribbles and I shot it. I wasn’t trying to bank, but it banked in and tied it up. We went on and won in overtime.”
The arrival of Mike Krzyzweski in 1980, with his hard scrabble man to man defense reignited Duke – Carolina into what it is today. Coach K was Bobby Knight’s protege and his teams were not afraid to mix it up with Dean Smith’s Tar Heels. By this time, both teams were consistently top ten in basketball, and that has continued as former Smith assistant Roy Williams took over the Carolina reigns in 2003. Smith’s retired in 1997 with 879 wins. First, it was Bob Knight who surpassed him, then coach K lapped them both on his way to notch 1,000 coaching victories.
The games can be tense, nail-biting affairs, hotly contested, and bitterly fought. The winner gets to gloat until the next game, be it a few weeks, or an entire off season. Ironically, the two squads have never met in the NCAA tournament. Their only post season encounter, aside from ACC tournament play, was a sole meeting in the 1971 NIT Semi-finals, a game won by UNC, en route to the NIT title.
While publicly, players on both sides talk about a healthy respect at the professional level, privately a lot of smack and friendly wagers take place. This has been confirmed to me by several NBA alums of both schools.
I remember a particularly sordid game during my freshman year at North Carolina. Two years before Krzyzewski’s arrival, the team was coached by Bill Foster, and they were loaded. Their players included Gene Banks, Jim Spanarkel, and Mike Gminski. UNC, by contrast, had a very young squad with future low level pros Mike O’Koren and Al Wood, along with Jeff Wolf. They felt over matched and coach Smith decided to take advantage of the rules, and stall for the entire first twenty minutes. That led to a 7-0 Duke halftime score and a very unexciting first half of basketball. That strategy was scrapped and the second half saw both teams trading baskets, and scoring the exact same number of points. The final of 47-40 led to a lot of discussion, and no doubt, sped up the adoption of the shot clock.
Wikipedia lists twenty-two different memorable games in the series. I consulted my UNC expert, Fred Pearlman, for some of his favorites, which included the Walter Davis game.
I must keep it to UNC wins, no UNC loss would be a top game:
-1989, ACC tournament Final. We’d lost to them three straight times the year before, including the tourney title. We had lost to them one week before on Senior Day in Chapel Hill. Intense game. Danny Ferry barely missed a seventy-five foot shot that would have tied game at the buzzer!
-1969 ACC Tourney Final. Back then, only the ACC tournament winner went to NCAA tournament. Down by 9 or 11 at halftime, Charlie Scott scored 28 of his 40 points to lead us back, onto a 9-11 point win. Ended up making our third straight Final Four.
-1979 ACC Tourney Final. Notice the pattern, the tournament finals in 1969, 1979, and 1989. (UNC also played Duke in the 1999 Tournament finals, but that did not turn out as well.) As mentioned above Carolina lost to Duke 47-40 the week before, won a sort of close game in the ACC Tourney final. I still have the Sports Illustrated cover of Dudley Bradley (the Tourney MVP), dunking over Mike Gminski!
Here are couple of regular season games:
-2006, Duke was #1 in nation, playing at home, Senior Day for JJ Redick and Shelden Williams. Carolina’s “depleted” team, starting two walk-ons, two moderately recruited freshmen, and Tyler Hansbrough. They won the game with two key hoops late in game by career reserve Byron Sanders, a huge three-pointer at shot-clock buzzer by Hansbrough that pretty much sealed the game
-1992, the only game of this list I attended, we beat #1 Duke in Chapel Hill, always known as the “Bloody Montross game.” UNC lead the entire second half, Duke came back, but the tar Heels won 75-73 on late foul shots by Derrick Phelps. Christian Laettner and Bobby Hurley also played in that game.
-1974, the famous “8 points in 17 seconds” game. I still remember watching with my Dad and Grandfather. Always forgotten are the huge baskets made in overtime by Brad Hoffman.