The best rivalry in college basketball: Images capture Duke-Carolina intensity
An Austin Rivers buzzer beater. Dean Smith soaked in sweat. Duke’s 7-0 halftime lead. The ceiling is the roof. Duke vs. UNC.
It’s one of the greatest rivalries in sports.
The series between the two began in the 1919-20 season, and along the way there have been huge moments, huge comebacks and lots of instant classics. The rivalry continues Friday night in the ACC tournament semifinals when the No. 2 Blue Devils and the No. seed 6 Tar Heels face off at 9 p.m. at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, NY. The winner will play for the ACC championship on Saturday.
The News & Observer’s reporters and photographers, who have covered countless Duke-UNC matchups over the years, share the best ones they’ve been to. Here’s a look back.
‘The Austin Rivers Game’
The wildest ending to any college basketball game – or any game, ever, really – that I’ve covered came in the 2016 national championship between Villanova and North Carolina. It might never be topped. But the wildest ending to a UNC-Duke game I covered? That’s easy.
It’s 2012, and “the Austin Rivers game.” Some games are so good throughout, and so competitive, that you just know it’s going to come down to a final possession, or a last-second shot. This was not the Austin Rivers game.
No, the Tar Heels were thoroughly in control – right up until the moment they completely lost it. On Feb. 8, 2012, UNC led by as many as 13 points, with about 15 minutes remaining, and then led by 10, twice, with less than five minutes left. The last of those 10-point leads was 82-72 with 2 ½ minutes remaining.
The game was over, it looked like. One or two writers there to cover it shut their laptops and went back into the media room. Most in the crowd in the Smith Center sat in contentment, a UNC victory assured. It was almost a little boring, through the first 37 ½ minutes.
And then Duke cut UNC’s lead to 82-75. And then, quickly, it was 82-78 after a Seth Curry 3. Uh-oh. With UNC leading 83-80 with 15 seconds left, Tyler Zeller, the Tar Heels senior forward who was ACC Player of the Year that season, accidentally tipped in Ryan Kelly’s miss and it was a one-point game.
When Duke took control again in the final seconds it trailed 84-82. Rivers, the freshman guard, dribbled to the right side. Zeller was there to defend after switching on a screen. Rivers released the shot, well behind the 3-point line, with 1.3 seconds left. It went in as time expired, giving Duke a 85-84 win, in the final moment of one of the great comebacks, among either team, in this fierce rivalry.
Jeff Capel. Double overtime.
It’s hard to top the Feb. 2, 1995 Duke-Carolina game in Cameron. All it had was Jeff Capel’s running 30-footer at the buzzer to tie the score, two overtimes and a final score of 102-100.
The second-ranked Tar Heels won it, even after the shock of seeing Capel bomb in his shot from just past midcourt for a 95-95 tie at the end of the first overtime. That was the season Blue Devils coach Mike Krzyzewski wasn’t on the bench after complications from back surgery, but Capel and the Devils built a 12-point lead in the second half before the Tar Heels rallied.
UNC’s Jerry Stackhouse had a savage reverse dunk, capping it off by jutting out his jaw and nodding his head as he stalked away. ESPN has shown that more than a few times in the 20-plus years since that night in Durham. And Capel’s shot, of course.
“It was the greatest basketball game I’ve ever been a part of,” Stackhouse said.
The year before, Duke was No. 1 and Carolina No. 2 when the two played in Chapel Hill, the Tar Heels winning 89-78 and UNC fans chanting “Over-rated, over-rated” at the Blue Devils late in the game. The 1995 game didn’t have the rankings, only the drama.
UNC coach Dean Smith, sipping a soda outside the locker room, spotted the N&O’s beat writer and said, simply, “What a game.”
A moment of silence
This game on Feb. 18, 2015 at Cameron Indoor Stadium showed the rivalry in all its glory. It was 11 days after the death of legendary UNC coach Dean Smith. Before the game, players and coaches from both teams formed a circle at midcourt, arms around each others’ shoulders, for a moment of silence for Smith, who died at 83.
When the game started, the fourth-ranked Blue Devils built a seven-point halftime lead before their shooting fell apart in the second half. No. 18 UNC led by 10 with just under four minutes to play.
That’s when Duke freshman guard Tyus Jones took over. Jones scored Duke’s final nine points of regulation and the rivals went to overtime for the first time in 11 years.
Jones and senior guard Quinn Cook, in his final Duke-UNC game at Cameron Indoor Stadium, each scored 22 points as the Blue Devils beat the Tar Heels 92-90 in a season that ended with an NCAA tournament championship win over Wisconsin.
Coach K says UNC is ‘better than us’
While the Austin Rivers game is probably the most memorable Duke-Carolina game I have covered, the most momentous was my first as a columnist: Feb. 11, 2009. North Carolina ran Duke off the floor in Cameron that night for the fourth straight time, 101-87, showing not only its offensive firepower but the buy-in on defense that would finally deliver Tyler Hansbrough a national title in his final shot.
Afterward, Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski was forced to tip his hat. “They’re better than us,” he said, and he didn’t mean just that night. Duke would win the ACC in 2009, but the Tar Heels’ national title that spring, combined with Harrison Barnes choosing Chapel Hill over Durham, seemed to confirm a new ascendancy for UNC.
Of course, Duke won a title of its own in 2010 while North Carolina fell to the NIT and neither team would make the Final Four for the next four years.
At that moment, though, North Carolina had firmly claimed the upper hand in the rivalry -- and history reminds us how fleeting that can be.
Duke leads 7-0 .... at halftime
On Feb. 24, 1979, Duke led North Carolina 7-0 at halftime.
Trailing 2-0 just 33 seconds into the game, Dean Smith refused to play against Duke’s vaunted 2-3 zone defense under coach Bill Foster. So, the Tar Heels held the ball without resistance (there was no shot clock) for the next 12:25. By halftime, UNC had missed its only two field goal attempts and Duke had forged the seven-point lead.
When the two teams played at full speed in the second half, Duke would never surrender the lead, winning 47-40, and forged a tie for first place in the final ACC regular-season standings. Few remember what was at stake in the game, nor that Duke’s star center Mike Gminski was ejected in the second half for throwing an elbow. But everyone remembers what happened in the strangest of strange first half of that game.
‘The ceiling is the roof’
The game was March 4, 2017 in Chapel Hill at the Dean Smith Center and the only Duke-UNC, or UNC-Duke game I had been to at that point. It was so packed with media, I didn’t even get a seat on press row. I was there to gather information for a story about Kentucky freshman forward Kevin Knox, who was at the time being recruited by both UNC and Duke.
The thing I most remember from that game, however, was Michael Jordan walked right past me. He went on the court to announce a deal between Jordan Brand and UNC football. Then he said the phrase that will go down in history: “The ceiling is the roof.”
Jonathan M. Alexander
I have collected many great memories from the Duke vs. North Carolina series over my 36 seasons covering basketball for the N&O. I am fortunate to have photographed so much great basketball in games between these rivals.
UNC’s 102-100 win in Durham on Feb. 2, 1995 was a classic even before the double overtime. Rasheed Wallace and Jerry Stackhouse produced a highlight reel of dunks from that night. This is one of my favorites of Rasheed Wallace from the second half.
The noise level inside Cameron Indoor Stadium often resembles that of an aircraft carrier. At the end of the night, hours after the game, and after wearing ear plugs during the game, your ears are still ringing. Cameron is loud for every game, but it goes to a different level when the Tar Heels visit.
One year I ran into coach Smith in the hall outside the press room waiting for coach Krzyzewski to finish his remarks. Smith’s dress shirt was soaked completely through every square inch of his oxford cloth button down. I watched him slip his suit coat over his wet shirt and straighten his tie before entering to meet the press.
Growing up in North Carolina I have always followed the rivalry. The game on March 2, 1974 is one I never will never forget. Listening to the game on the radio, North Carolina was down by eight points with 17 seconds to play, when Dean Smith and his team executed a comeback to tie the game and went on to 96-92 win in overtime. It remains of the all-time great comebacks in college basketball history.
Chris Duhon shoots – and celebrates
I’ve covered more than 50 Duke-UNC basketball games since the mid 1980s. One of the first that was memorable to me was on Jan. 18, 1986, when No. 1 UNC beat No. 3 Duke 95-92. It was the loudest place I had ever covered a game (until the next season when I was introduced to Cameron Indoor Stadium).
Photographers often consider a game memorable based on the photos we make.
On Feb. 5, 2004, No. 1 Duke senior point guard Chris Duhon made a layup with 6.5 seconds left in overtime to give the Blue Devils an 83-81 win in Chapel Hill. After his basket, Duhon turned around and ran towards me, as he jumped into the arms of sophomore forward Lee Melchionni to celebrate.
The best part about the Duke-UNC rivalry is that the games are usually really good, and often times decide which team will get a higher seed in the ACC tournament. You can throw rankings out the window on these rivalry games, too. It doesn’t matter where either team stands….it’s always a dogfight.
Duke vs. North Carolina
ACC tournament semifinals
When: 9 p.m.
Where: Barclays Center, Brooklyn, NY
TV: ESPN, WRAL