We said goodbye to Dean Smith, celebrated a national title and saw Duke, North Carolina and N.C. State enjoy a year of collective success in 2015, with all three teams making the Sweet 16 in basketball and bowl games in football.
The Blue Devils ended the ACC’s four-year Final Four drought and went on to win the Triangle’s fifth national title in the past 15 years, the highlight of a sports year that offered both breakthrough success and heartbreaking tragedy.
These aren’t the greatest or the best or the worst, merely the Triangle’s most memorable sports moments of 2015.
10. State’s Abu salutes fallen friends
In the wake of the senseless killing of three young Muslims in Chapel Hill in February that shocked the country, N.C. State forward Abdul-Malik Abu, a devout Muslim himself, was heartbroken. He was friends with Deah Barakat and Yusor Abu-Salha, and had promised them wins over Duke and North Carolina at their wedding last December.
Abu and the Wolfpack delivered. N.C. State already had defeated Duke in January, then beat the Tar Heels in Chapel Hill for the first time since 2003 – only two weeks after the murders – on the way to the Wolfpack’s second Sweet 16 appearance in four seasons.
9. RailHawks swept up in FIFA probe, sold
When U.S. investigators conducted a surprise roundup of FIFA’s top executives in Switzerland as part of a probe into corruption at soccer’s world headquarters in May, the Florida-based owners of the Carolina RailHawks were among those indicted and arrested.
With the franchise’s future in question, local software executive Stephen Malik in October stepped in to buy the team, which had been languishing for several years. Malik promised immediate investment into every aspect of the team while entertaining the possibility of pursuing an MLS team for the Triangle.
8. Garner wins first boys basketball title
Garner has always been a football powerhouse. Maybe it’s a basketball town, too. The 28-1 Trojans won the NCHSAA 4A state title in March by beating Charlotte Ardrey Kell at North Carolina’s Smith Center, Garner’s first in boys basketball.
Garner had previously won state titles in football (1987), baseball (1978) and girls basketball (1978), but it was the Trojans’ first trip to the title game in boys basketball. Among other notable state titles, undefeated Panther Creek claimed the 4A girls soccer title as well as the No. 2 national ranking, and South Granville won 2A titles in baseball and softball at N.C. State on the same day.
7. Canes win big in draft, pay big to buy out Semin
Picking fifth in June’s draft, the Hurricanes got lucky when the first four teams all took forwards, leaving them the top defenseman in the draft, Boston College’s Noah Hanifin. With Justin Faulk, Hanifin and other prospects, the Hurricanes may have the raw material to put together one of the best blue lines in the NHL.
Five days later, they paid $14 million to buy out the contract of underperforming forward Alexander Semin. After signing a five-year, $35 million extension, Semin scored only 28 goals in two seasons and became the face of the franchise’s failure as the Hurricanes missed the playoffs for the sixth straight season – a streak on its way to becoming seven while the team remains in limbo as owner Peter Karmanos attempts to sell it.
6. Triangle stars help U.S. to World Cup victory
The United States team that won the Women’s World Cup in Canada this summer relied heavily on former North Carolina players and a former N.C. State assistant coach. U.S. coach Jill Ellis got her start in coaching with the Wolfpack in 1988 long before she was named national-team coach in 2014.
Her Cup-winning players included six Tar Heels: Lori Chalupny, Whitney Engen, Ashlyn Harris, Tobin Heath, Meghan Klingenberg and Heather O’Reilly. UNC players also represented Canada, England and New Zealand, while Raleigh lawyer Hampton Dellinger led an unsuccessful gender-discrimination lawsuit against FIFA, attempting to move the tournament off artificial-turf fields.
5. NCAA issues Notice of Allegations in UNC scandal
The NCAA’s long-awaited Notice of Allegations into the longstanding academic fraud at North Carolina arrived in May, leveling an accusation of “lack of institutional control” at the university, the NCAA’s gravest charge, while raising as many questions as it answered.
The notice classified the phony classes and grade changes as “impermissible benefits” instead of a more blanket indictment of the methods used to keep athletes eligible, primarily in the Department of African and Afro-American Studies. North Carolina’s response was due to the NCAA in August, but has been indefinitely delayed after evidence of more infractions emerged this summer.
4. Krzyzewski wins 1,000th
It might not have had the same sentimental value for Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski as passing his mentor Bobby Knight for the all-time record four years ago with his 903rd win, but becoming the first Division I men’s coach to hit quadruple digits still meant something to Krzyzewski and Duke fans.
That the coach reached both milestones at Madison Square Garden, a short trip from where he got his start as both a player and coach at Army, was merely a happy coincidence. Duke ended the January game on an 18-2 run to defeat St. John’s.
3. Tar Heels break through on football field (as does Triangle)
Despite a disheartening (and increasingly baffling) season-opening loss to South Carolina in Charlotte, UNC won 11 straight to capture both the ACC’s Coastal Division and the unofficial state title. The Tar Heels broke through the eight-win barrier for the first time since 1997 and came within a play or two of winning the ACC title against Clemson.
While both Duke and N.C. State lost to North Carolina, all three teams made bowl games for only the third time ever and need only one bowl win among them this week to break the all-time record for combined wins of 25 set in 1994. Duke and Virginia Tech, meanwhile, made history by playing the ACC’s first four-overtime game.
2. Dean Smith dies
A champion of both basketball and social justice, former North Carolina coach Dean Smith died in February at 83 after many years of declining health. The legendary coach retired in 1997 as the game’s winningest coach (a mark later broken by Knight and Krzyzewski) but was remembered for his work to integrate Chapel Hill as much as his two national titles – a member of the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame and a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
“America lost not just a coaching legend but a gentleman and a citizen,” President Barack Obama said. Two months later, Smith’s successor and loyal assistant Bill Guthridge died at age 77.
1. Duke wins national title, breaks ACC drought
Led by four precocious freshmen, Duke won its fifth national championship in dramatic fashion, coming back from a nine-point second-half deficit in the title game to defeat Wisconsin, 68-63. The Blue Devils went 18-1 after guard Rasheed Sulaimon was dismissed from the team in January, losing to Notre Dame in the ACC semifinals but rolling through the NCAA tournament to make it to Indianapolis and end the ACC’s four-year Final Four drought.
Freshmen Jahlil Okafor, Justise Winslow and Tyus Jones all turned pro and were taken in the first round of the NBA draft, while Grayson Allen went from bit player to impact player during the Final Four.
It was a banner NCAA tournament for the Triangle’s ACC teams: All three made the Sweet 16 for first time since 2005, with N.C. State’s Round of 32 win over Villanova ranking among the most dramatic finishes and biggest upsets of the entire tournament.
The competition didn’t end then: In the immediate aftermath, all three teams hoped to land Kinston’s Brandon Ingram, one of the nation’s top recruits. Ingram eventually chose Duke, completing the Blue Devils’ dream season.
Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, firstname.lastname@example.org, @LukeDeCock
Other memorable moments from the N&O sports staff
A life-changing draft pick
On June 26, Noah Hanifin knew his life was about to change, and in a big way.
Depending on the team that drafted him on the first day of the 2015 NHL Draft, the Boston College defenseman realized he could be spending a big chunk of his hockey career in the Arizona desert, the hockey cauldron that is Toronto or in the Southeast with the Carolina Hurricanes.
“I’ll just be excited to go to the team that wants me,” Hanifin said the day before the draft in Sunrise, Fla.
The Hurricanes wanted him, taking him with the fifth overall pick at the BB&T Center. At 18, Hanifin is playing in the NHL and should be vital part of the Canes’ future.
Canes beat writer Chip Alexander
Quinn Cook’s happy tears
As the last seconds ticked off the clock in Houston, the tears started for Quinn Cook. All year, Cook had been asked how it felt to have not have won anything of significance during his Duke career. No ACC tournament titles, no Final Fours, no banners of any kind.
He was a good sport, dutifully answering the questions that reminded him of past failings. But after Duke beat Gonzaga to advance to the Final Four, Cook had his banner. And the 22-year-old college kid was so happy that he cried.
He buried his head in Mike Kryzewski’s arms and Nate James’s chest and let the emotion spill out of him. One week later, Cook would end his career as a national champion.
Duke beat writer Laura Keeley
Wolfpack upsets No. 1 Villanova
N.C. State’s 71-68 upset of top-seeded Villanova in the NCAA tournament in March was the Wolfpack’s first win over a No. 1 seed since knocking off Houston in the 1983 national championship game.
Combined with the Wolfpack’s dramatic round of 64 win over LSU, on a buzzer-beating lefty hook shot by big man BeeJay Anya, and N.C. State’s tournament run was one to remember.
“I don’t believe in magic but this is another feeling,” forward Abdul-Malik Abu said.
N.C. State beat writer Joe Giglio
Spending time with Bill Guthridge
When Dean Smith died last February the first person that came to my mind was Bill Guthridge, Smith’s longtime friend and assistant at North Carolina. There had been rumblings for a while around UNC that Guthridge was in poor health, too.
I wondered if it’d be possible to spend some time with Guthridge to get a sense of how the death of Smith affected him. So I contacted Guthridge’s wife, Leesie, and somewhat to my surprise she was open to the idea of a story and open, too, about her husband’s health.
I spent a couple of hours one afternoon with Guthridge in his room in the medical wing of the assisted living facility where he lived. His memories came and went but in the good moments he could still tell stories from decades ago.
He was aware that Smith, his friend, was gone. It had been difficult for Guthridge in recent years, watching Smith’s health decline. At one point Guthridge said, “My friends now are dead. I think they’re all dead.” Moments later Guthridge said, “My life was pretty good … and is still pretty good.”
A few months later, in May, he was gone, too. It was impossible not to find symmetry in the deaths of Smith and Guthridge. One came not long after the other and they were together again.
UNC beat writer Andrew Carter