DURHAM, N.C. — It is the moments that matter. More than the games. More than the coaches. Even more than the players.
It is true everywhere in sports, but perhaps nowhere more so than on Tobacco Road, where the moments that have marked the clashes between Duke and North Carolina can linger long after the men who made them possible have left this basketball-crazed state.
At one point during Wednesday’s thrilling game between the fourth-ranked Blue Devils and the 15th-ranked Tar Heels, the scoreboard at a pulsating Cameron Indoor Stadium displayed just a few of those moments that have marked the decades of the best, and most evenly-matched, rivalry in sports. They were those that favored the home team, of course, which meant they hardly did justice to what has made games between these ancient antagonists so unforgettable.
While there were no half-court shots (Walter Davis for UNC in 1974, Jeff Capel for Duke in '95), last-second lead changes (Marvin Williams for Carolina, 2005) or buzzer-beaters (Austin Rivers for Duke, 2012) there were, to be sure, plenty of moments from Duke’s 92-90 overtime victory that will one day fit nicely in a heart-stopping montage. There were Quinn Cook’s five first-half three-pointers for the Blue Devils that threatened to bury the visitors before they had even gotten their baby-blue-blood pumping. There were the three ferocious dunks by J.P. Tokoto, North Carolina’s human pogo-stick, including a reverse jam that gave the Tar Heels their first lead of the night with 15:22 remaining. There were the fearless drives to the basket by Duke’s Tyus Jones, who heeded his coach's advice to "just play" and scored his team’s last nine points to cap a furious rally from 10 down in the final four minutes and force overtime. And, lastly, there was the rebound secured by Justise Winslow after North Carolina nearly put back a missed free throw that would have forced, improbably, a second overtime. Instead it led to an on-court celebration for the Blue Devils that was as joyous as it once seemed unlikely.
For all of that, the moment that will remembered longest, and the one that spoke the loudest about why this rivalry has risen above all others, was the quietest one of the night and it took place before the game even began. Two programs that are always separated by eight miles and often by an ocean of bitterness came together. The players, coaches and staff dropped to a knee at halfcourt for a moment of silence in remembrance of recently deceased Tar Heels coaching legend Dean Smith, who passed away at 83 on Feb. 7 after a long battle with dementia. North Carolina coach Roy Williams and Mike Krzyzewski, his Duke counterpart, put their arms around one another and bowed their heads.
It was Kryzewski’s idea, yet another example that the man Tar Heels fans love to hate has actually shown quite a bit of love for the departed Smith. After Smith died, Krzyzewski spoke glowingly of him on multiple occasions, first calling him a “great man,” and later saying, “I love him, and I love what he built and how he did it.”
Last Thursday, Krzyzewski wore a light blue tie while attending Smith’s funeral in Chapel Hill. There, he and Williams first discussed the subject of how to handle acknowledging Smith’s passing when the two teams played. On Tuesday, Williams called Krzyzewski to talk some more, and both coaches traded ideas.
“His was better,” said Williams.
“I don’t know about that," said Krzyzewski. "Roy and I are great friends. We both understand that we are lucky guys to coach these two teams. I loved the way that went.”
Once the game began, Krzyzewski had reason to love much of the way that went, too. His Blue Devils bolted to leads of 9-2, 20-8 and, eventually, 49-36, when Cook sank his fifth three-pointer of the night. Even with freshman center Jahlil Okafor, a leading contender for national player of the year, forced to leave the game late in the half with a sprained ankle, they carried a seven-point lead into the break on the strength of 58 percent shooting overall and 7-of-9 from behind the arc.
Accelerating their vaunted up-tempo attack into overdrive, the Tar Heels recovered. They drew within one at 53-52 when Tokoto tipped home an Isaiah Hicks miss with 15:45 left and finally went ahead 23 seconds later on Tokoto’s reverse dunk in transition. A layup by UNC forward Brice Johnson, who teamed with fellow big man Kennedy Meeks to score 36 points on 15-of-20 shooting, ignited a 15-5 run that left Carolina in control, up 77-67 with 3:51 remaining.
As they built their lead, the Heels had abandoned their big-to-big double teams that limited Okafor to 12 points on the night in favor of putting more defensive pressure on the guards who, Williams figured, would try to shoot the Blue Devils back into the game from the perimeter. Winslow did make one three that began the comeback but Duke’s final 11 points of regulation came on penetration by slashers Winslow and Jones. The latter of whom hit one layup to slice the deficit to 79-74 when Carolina twice failed to secure defensive rebounds, then followed it up with two free throws, a three-point play and, finally, a layup with 21 seconds left that tied the score at 81.
Williams drew up a play for his star guard, junior Marcus Paige, to take the final shot, but Paige, who finished 2-of-11 from the field and scored only five points, bricked a three, and the game headed to overtime for the first time between these teams in 11 years.
The lead changed hands five times in the extra period, with Duke going ahead for good at 90-89 on Okafor’s layup with 1:44 to go. Carolina had a chance to tie with under 20 seconds remaining, but the Devils, as they had done all night, thwarted Paige’s attempts to get the ball. Tokoto settled for a baseline jumper—“not our first, second or third option,” Williams said later—that missed badly. Cook hit only one of the two ensuing free throws, keeping the Tar Heels' faint hopes alive and setting the stage for what might have been a moment to take its place alongside any in the previous 95 years of the rivalry. Instead, Duke intentionally fouled Carolina’s Nate Britt, who made the first free throw but purposely missed the second. Paige appeared to get his hands on the rebound, but Winslow snatched it away and the clock, finally, expired.
At the buzzer, the moments began to unfold all over the court. Tar Heels players sank to the floor or buried their heads in their hands on the bench. Blue Devils players celebrated with the jubilant Cameron Crazies before being hurried back to shake hands with those they had, somehow, outlasted. Krzyzewski thrust his arms in the air triumphantly as he walked off the court named in his honor. Williams, his eyes red after the game, confessed, "I want to beat them so bad I can taste it. But there's a lot of respect between those two programs."
As well there should be. This was the 75th time both teams have come into the game ranked, and they have now split their past 88 games evenly, each winning 44 times. Since the end of UCLA's dynasty in 1975, only four schools have won four national championships. Two of them are Duke and North Carolina. They are made better simply for having the other nearby, and out of such proximity has come the knowledge that no victory can be savored for long.
“Those guys are good, real good, one of the best teams in the country,” said Cook afterward. “We know we’ll have to see them again.”
Indeed they will. The rematch in Chapel Hill is set for March 7. It would be foolish to think that that game could match this one for intensity, for passion, for moments. It would be equally foolish to think that it can’t.