Sometimes, the hype is justified.
The fawning over Duke and North Carolina can, at times, be thick to the point of sickening. The TV talking head panels are rife with alums of both programs. The virtue signaling from both programs is vigorous. ESPN is a willing participant in the overkill.
But you know what? There is abundant substance behind the sizzle. The games deliver. The teams win. There is still a big college basketball world outside Tobacco Road, but Carolina-Duke really is the best of what the sport can be on a remarkably consistent basis.
And now, they meet in a game that is so large that the hype—for once!—cannot keep pace. The 258th meeting of the Blue Devils and Tar Heels is their first in the NCAA tournament, and it happens to be at the Final Four, and it happens to be with legend-in-residence Mike Krzyzewski’s career on the line. (If you haven’t heard, he’s retiring whenever his team’s season ends in New Orleans.)
Duke vs. UNC Odds and Best Bets for Final Four
With that cataclysm looming ahead Saturday, let’s take a quick look back at the building blocks of this unmatched rivalry. The best wins for each team, and the most infamous meetings as well. (Your own lists may vary. There’s a lot to choose from.)
Duke’s Five Best Wins
1. March 13, 1988. Duke 65, North Carolina 61: This win in the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament completed what was, at the time, referred to as the “Triple Crown,” a three-game sweep of the season series. It was Krzyzewski’s first 3–0 season against the Tar Heels, and it remains the only three-game sweep in which both teams were ranked in the top 10 for every meeting. That season also started a run of five straight Final Fours and two national championships for Duke, elevating its program past North Carolina for the first time since the mid-1960s.
2. March 2, 1968. Duke 87, North Carolina 86, 3OT: The name “Fred Lind” means nothing in the history of college basketball outside of this game. A reserve junior center, Lind had an unremarkable career until called upon against the No. 3 Tar Heels due to his teammates’ fouls and injuries. Lind blocked a shot at the end of regulation, made two free throws to force a second overtime, then hit a jump shot in the final seconds to force the third OT. Duke fans hoisted Lind on their shoulders and carried him to the campus quad afterward.
3. March 10, 1984. Duke 77, North Carolina 75: Led by Michael Jordan, the Tar Heels were the No. 1 team in the nation and had beaten Duke six straight times, twice earlier that season. With a 1–8 record against Carolina, fourth-year coach Krzyzewski was struggling to gain traction in the rivalry. The Blue Devils nearly pulled the upset in Chapel Hill a week earlier, but lost a late lead when Matt Doherty hit a shot with a second left to force OT. This breakthrough win in the ACC tournament changed the equation of the rivalry.
4. Feb. 8, 2012. Duke 85, North Carolina 84: Trailing by 10 points with just a little more than two minutes remaining in the Dean Dome, Duke staged a furious rally that included UNC center Tyler Zeller inadvertently tipping in a Blue Devils shot. The Heels still led by two on the final possession. Duke guard Austin Rivers opted against driving for the tying basket, instead launching a three from the wing over a lunging Zeller for the win at the buzzer.
5. Feb. 28, 1998. Duke 77, North Carolina 75: In a matchup of top-three teams, the No. 1 Blue Devils trailed at home by 17 points with less than 12 minutes remaining. Roshown McLeod capped a furious rally with the winning basket. The Tar Heels would advance to the Final Four while Duke was upset by eventual national champion Kentucky in the Elite Eight, but the Devils won 16 of the next 20 in the rivalry as the Heels searched for the right successor to Dean Smith. (They eventually found him in Roy Williams.)
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North Carolina’s Five Best Wins
1. March 5, 2022. North Carolina 94, Duke 81: This is not recency bias—the latest game in the series really was the greatest win for the Tar Heels. This was Coach K’s final home game, with nearly 100 of his former players in the building, plus maximum ESPN fanfare and media attention. Lacking quality wins and dogged by blowout losses, Carolina wasn’t even a sure thing to make the NCAA tournament before this game. Despite trailing most of the contest, the Heels rose up in the final 10 minutes to rip the game away and ruin the Krzyzewski party. They haven’t slowed down since.
2. March 2, 1974. North Carolina 96, Duke 92, OT: This was—and arguably still is—the gold standard for miracle comebacks in college basketball. Carolina trailed 86–78 with 17 seconds left, and this was before the three-point shot existed. The Heels scored six quick points to give themselves a slim chance, and after Duke’s Pete Kramer missed the front end of a one-and-one, Walter Davis banked in a 30-foot shot as time expired to force overtime. Blue Devils coach Neill McGeachy was fired after his one and only season on the job.
3. March 4, 2006. North Carolina 83, Duke 71: This was Senior Day for JJ Redick, a player Carolina fans loved to hate, and the Devils were ranked No. 1. The Heels were rebuilding after winning the national championship the year before. But freshman Tyler Hansbrough led UNC to a 10-point lead, then they survived a late Duke barrage and pulled away in the final minute. Hansbrough finished with 27 points while spawning a new Cameron Crazy chant (“TY-ler TRAV-els every time!”). Redick went 5-for-21, missing 15 of his last 16 shots.
4. Feb. 5, 1992. North Carolina 75, Duke 73: The reigning national champion Blue Devils were 17–0 entering this game, a juggernaut that seemed a threat to become the first undefeated team in the sport since 1976. The Tar Heels ended that talk in the Dean Smith Center, despite failing to score a field goal in the final 9 1/2 minutes of play. Christian Laettner, Duke’s Mr. Clutch, missed a pair of shots in the final half minute. Carolina hit its free throws down the stretch, including a pair by center Eric Montross, who took a beating during the game. He received stitches for a cut in the back of his head in the first half and had a cut under his left eye in the second half.
5. March 12, 1989. North Carolina 77, Duke 74: This rubber match game in the ACC tourney might have been the height of the “class warfare” tussle between Smith and Krzyzewski, as both coaches tried to not just beat each other but portray their program as the more virtuous of the two. North Carolina won in Cameron in February, with Smith taking issue with Cameron Crazy signs that said, “J.R. Can’t Reid,” a shot at Heels star J.R. Reid. Duke won the rematch in the Dean Dome a few weeks later. In a fierce battle that featured 49 fouls, Carolina prevailed when a Danny Ferry heave from 75 feet away bounced off the rim.
The Five Most Infamous Duke-Carolina Games
1. Feb. 4, 1961. The Brawl: Late in an 81–77 Duke victory, an aggressive foul by Blue Devils star Art Heyman on Tar Heels guard Larry Brown compelled Brown to respond with punches. Carolina teammate Donnie Walsh then jumped in and escalated the fight. The melee in Duke’s gym eventually included police and fans, and resulted in suspensions from the ACC commissioner for the rest of the regular season from league games for Heyman, Brown and Walsh. A sophomore, Heyman had originally committed to North Carolina before switching to Duke just before enrolling in 1959, and he had been involved in an altercation the previous year when the two programs’ freshman teams played.
2. March 4, 2007. Tyler Hansbrough’s bloody face: With North Carolina closing out an 86–72 victory in the Dean Dome, Duke’s Gerald Henderson came down with an elbow to the face of the Tar Heels star. The result was a broken nose, blood everywhere and an ejection for Henderson. The gory visual became a snapshot of the rivalry, but both players later said the foul was unintentional. Hansbrough wore a mask to protect his nose through the postseason.
3. Jan. 21, 1984. The “double standard” game: Top-ranked North Carolina beat unranked Duke, 78–73, in Cameron, when Krzyzewski was just getting his program up to a level where it could compete with the Tar Heels. Afterward, Coach K was not pleased with how the officials handled their interactions with him and Smith. During the game, Smith twice went to the scorers’ table to complain, once allegedly banging on the equipment and causing the scoreboard to temporarily register 20 more points for Carolina. Smith denied hitting the equipment, but K countered that “he hit something.” Smith did not receive a technical in the game, but Krzyzewski did.
Krzyzewski opened his postgame remarks by taking a direct shot at Smith and how he’s treated by the officials in the league: “There was not a person on our bench who was pointing at officials or banging on the scorers’ table or having everybody running around on their bench. So let’s get some things straight around here and quit the double standard that sometimes exists in this league. All right?”
4. Feb. 24, 1979. Dean’s stall ball: The score at halftime of this game in Cameron: Duke 7, North Carolina 0. The Blue Devils went on to win 47–40, but the first half was mostly the Tar Heels holding the ball and refusing to attack while Duke sat in a zone. With the shot clock not yet implemented, this was Smith taking his Four Corners offense to an objectionable extreme. It would have been slightly more defensible if Smith was outmanned—like in a 21–20 stall-ball loss to No. 3 Duke in 1966—but his team was ranked fourth in the country, and Duke was No. 6. There is a reason the shot clock arrived in the college game shortly thereafter. “I always thought [James] Naismith invented basketball,” Duke coach Bill Foster said afterward, “not Dean Smith.”
5. Feb. 20, 2019. The split sneaker: Just 36 seconds into one of the most anticipated of all Duke–North Carolina games, with former President Barack Obama in the house, the No. 1–ranked Blue Devils’ megastar Zion Williamson blew out one of his Nikes. When Williamson’s sneaker split open it caused the powerful freshman to slide awkwardly, spraining his knee. Williamson not only missed the rest of that game—an 88–72 Duke loss—but the next five as well. It was the biggest anticlimax in rivalry history.
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