Whether you just got here, or have lived in these parts your entire life, you’re doubtless familiar with the rivalry. Certainly you’re familiar with the hype: When these teams play, forget the records. Or, if you prefer a more old-fashioned rendering, when they meet throw the record books out the (open) window.
The tradition! The talent! The coaches! The intensity! The quality of play! Great fodder for sages of couch and press room who have, with justification, anointed Duke-North Carolina the greatest rivalry in American sports.
TV too loves the Carolina-Duke series, almost as much as cliche-mongers love the outdated “Tobacco Road” label for the Triangle area. Polling shows basketball is America’s third most-favorite sport after football and baseball. But, when basketball is divided into NBA and NCAA versions, college ball ranks only seventh in popularity, barely edging out golf, that dullest of televised sports.
Duke-UNC ranks atop college’s regular-season TV ratings. Hard as it is to believe, casual fans don’t pay much attention to college basketball until the Super Bowl is over. Then the old rivals start to play. Last year’s two regular season clashes were ESPN’s first- and fourth-highest rated college telecasts, combining to attract 7.14 million viewers.
Media outlets often roll out highlights of great games in the series to precede the teams’ first annual meeting, this season at Chapel Hill on Thursday, four days after the Super Bowl.
Given the celebrated glories of the rivalry, it seems impossible that, since Roy Williams took over at Chapel Hill in 2003-04, regardless of venue Duke has won 11 of 14 initial season meetings in the series. Moreover, since 2010 the Tar Heels have won a mere four of 18 matchups between the two schools. That’s as many wins against Duke as Florida State managed over those same eight seasons – in 11 meetings. N.C. State’s Jan. 6, 2018 victory over the Blue Devils was its fifth in 15 meetings since 2010.
So, while there’s no denying the special nature of a Carolina-Duke game, don’t let ratings-fueled expectations and regional pride outrun the facts. Cliffhangers and classics are more the exception than the rule when Duke and UNC meet nowadays. Over the past three decades, the majority of their contests were decided by double-digit margins (36 of 71, 50.7 percent) compared to 20 by five or fewer points (28.2 percent).
Given that record, we might do well to focus on games memorable for their peculiar charms, another key ingredient in the series’ fascination:
March 6, 2010, (4) Duke 82, North Carolina 50, Cameron Indoor Stadium
Unable to get his team playing at his preferred pace, Roy Williams publicly acknowledged searching for answers, reviewing game plans from up to 15 years past. “I’m questioning everything, and I think that’s healthy,” he declared, not sounding entirely convinced.
The Tar Heels, beset by injuries, looked lost from the outset at Cameron. UNC had nine points in the game’s first nine minutes. By the time Williams felt compelled to call timeout, his team trailed 28-9. Duke doubled the score on UNC by halftime.
Spindly sophomore John Henson, harboring delusions he was a 6-11 guard, fired a no-look pass across the court and out-of-bounds, drawing an exasperated glare from Williams and an immediate substitute from the bench. Actual guard Larry Drew II, a pioneer in following his name with a Roman numeral, tepidly extended a shoulder to hinder a driving Kyle Singler.
Duke’s S-men – forward Singler and guards Nolan Smith and Jon Scheyer, both now Mike Krzyzewski assistants – combined for 15 more points than Carolina scored.
February 5, 1998: (2) North Carolina 97, (1) Duke 73, Smith Center
Days earlier, Duke undergrads swiped Michael Jordan’s retired replica jersey from the Dean Dome rafters. But the theft barely registered amid the festive, expectant atmosphere as ACC clubs ranked No.1 and No. 2 met for the fourth and final time to date. (UNC won all four.)
Warming up for the game, UNC students passed chancellor Michael Hooker backward over their heads. Then the Tar Heels staged an on-court celebration, making 63.5 percent of their shots while the Blue Devils converted only a third of theirs.
“It’s a clinic!” a TV announcer exclaimed as forward Antawn Jamison contributed 35 points and 11 rebounds, and oft-overlooked playmaker Ed Cota added 12 points and 12 assists, against the defense-minded Devils.
Coach Bill Guthridge’s Heels built a comfortable 50-34 lead, Duke’s first halftime deficit of the year. The Blue Devils rallied, but the Heels scored the game’s last 18 points as a tense tussle became an avalanche.
March 10, 1991: (7) North Carolina 96, (6) Duke 74, ACC tournament, Charlotte Coliseum
Dean Smith observed the Blue Devils “were practically unbeatable” leading up to the ACC tournament final. “I honestly thought it was the best Duke team in modern times.”
Ultimately he was proven correct – the Devils went on to capture the school’s first NCAA championship. But against a Carolina club it beat twice during the regular season, Krzyzewski’s squad quickly came unglued.
Duke scored two points on its first nine possessions, turning the ball over five consecutive times during one stretch, three by sophomore point guard Bobby Hurley, the unofficial ACC career leader with 534 turnovers. (He also had 1,076 career assists, most in modern NCAA history.)
Emotions overflowed among the Dukies. Krzyzewski incurred an early technical foul. Hurley yelled at teammates. Christian Laettner, the top Blue Devil scorer, confronted veteran official Gerry Donaghy in front of press row with an obscenity. Donaghy did nothing.
March 4, 1966: (3) Duke 21, North Carolina 20, Reynolds Coliseum
One season removed from being twice hanged in effigy on UNC’s campus, Smith set a standard for his 36-year tenure by squeezing whatever advantage he could from the rulebook in that pre-shot clock era. Facing Vic Bubas’ Blue Devils, the conference’s only ranked team, Smith unapologetically froze the ball in the ACC tournament semifinals.
UNC led 17-12 with 10:03 to go, but the Blue Devils, seeking their third Final Four trip in four years, caught up and held for the final shot. Mike Lewis was fouled, made the second of two free throws, and Duke escaped with a 21-20 win that left outsiders decrying Smith’s tactics. “I didn’t want a good game, I wanted to win,” said the unapologetic 35-year-old, a theme he maddeningly echoed after a stall helped Carolina win the 1982 ACC tournament final.