A delayed return, but a return nevertheless. Today, the Dean E. Smith Student Activities Center turned 30 today, so our countdown of the 30 greatest games the building's ever seen continues on.
The last time these two squads had clashed in Chapel Hill, coaches had to be separated in front of the Duke bench and Carolina knocked off the Blue Devils in one of the most heated games in the rivalry’s history. This time around, UNC had raised the stakes. This was Roy Williams’ first swing at Mike Krzyzewski since returning to Carolina.
Duke came in 18-1, unbeaten in the conference, and ranked #1 in the nation, and needless to say, ESPN had been teasing this game all over their basketball broadcasts for weeks. The Tar Heels had shown flashes of brilliance, but were only 13-5 against a loaded schedule and needed a win here to get back to .500 in the ACC. True to form, the Tar Heels started sloppy, turning the ball over a half dozen times early and digging themselves an 8-1 hole before the first TV timeout.
Carolina’s struggles on the offensive end continued, and Duke built a double digit lead halfway thru the opening session. Back to back blocks of J.J. Redick and Shavlik Randolph finally lit the fuse for the Heels, and UNC rolled off an 11-3 run to pull within one possession, but the Blue Devils settled back down and stretched the lead back out to as much as nine, but Melvin Scott picked up an errant Chris Duhon pass and got fouled on the runout with two seconds left in the half. Two free throws later and Carolina went to the locker room down only 42-37, a moral victory given how bad the Tar Heels had played for the majority of the half.
The teams traded baskets to open the second half, but the game remained sloppy as they traded turnovers, as well. Carolina finally drew even at 49 under the 15:00 mark on buckets from Rashad McCants and Jackie Manuel, and a McCants driving runner gave UNC their first lead of the contest. Back to back threes by Daniel Ewing and Duhon swung the momentum back to the bad guys, but Jawad Williams would push Carolina ahead again on a lay-in with 10:15 to play. Then Luol Deng put Duke back ahead. Then McCants converted a three point play to give UNC the lead. Back and forth they went. Ewing answered with a three. Then the spurt: Felton worked his way thru traffic for a layup to swing the lead back to UNC, Felton sank a three from in front of the Carolina bench, and a McCants fastbreak jam capped off a 9-0 run to give the Tar Heels their biggest lead of the night at 69-62 with just over 5:00 to go.
But Carolina went cold, and Duke wasn’t going quietly. Four quick points cut the margin to three heading into the final official timeout, and a Deng basket inside cut the Carolina lead to just 1 with three minutes left. After another Carolina miss, two Duhon free throws pushed the Blue Devils back ahead. McCants cut to the hoop on a nice drive with 1:15 to play but got rejected by Shelden Williams, and Deng sank two more freebies to finish a 10-0 Duke run and give the Blue Devils a 72-69 lead heading into the final minute. Sean May corralled a Williams miss and stuck it back to stop the bleeding. The Heels were a stop and a bucket from winning the game.
They couldn’t get the stop. Redick drove the lane and got a tough layup, leaving the Tar Heels needing three to draw even. The execution wasn’t pretty, but Williams drained a three from the top of the key with 18 seconds left to tie the game, and Ewing’s shot from the corner fell short, sending the contest to overtime.
Duke took early command in the extra session, but Ewing missed a wide open three that would’ve pushed Duke’s lead to six, and his subsequent silly foul on McCants on the rebound allowed UNC to pull back to 79-78. After a series of empty possessions, Carolina found itself with the ball with under a minute to go but couldn’t get a shot off. The shot clock violation forced the Heels to foul, and Redick drained both to make it a three point game, just like at the end of regulation. And just as we saw earlier, Carolina tied the game, this time on a Melvin Scott three from the right wing with 13 seconds left. Double overtime? Not exactly, as Duhon took the inbounds pass for one of the signature moments in the history of the rivalry, okey-doking to half court and then making a mad dash down the sideline and toward the basket, swooping thru the lane for a go-ahead reverse layup with 6 seconds left. Carolina rushed back down, but Scott’s three to win the game fell short, and McCants couldn’t handle the putback, allowing the bad guys to escape the Smith Center with a dramatic 83-81 victory.
McCants finished with a game-high 27, and May had 15 points (despite missing a bunch of bunnies) and 21 rebounds, foreshadowing his dominance of Shelden Williams and the Blue Devils the following year. This game was the first of a thrilling three year, six game, set which ultimately sent the pendulum of the rivalry swinging swiftly back toward Chapel Hill. The next time these two teams would meet in this building, Carolina would finally turn the tables on Duke in one of the defining moments in the history of UNC basketball.
And another great game from Roy’s first season back in Chapel Hill.
Top ranked UConn returned south a year after being upset at the Smith Center the year prior. With mostly everyone back, including studs Emeka Okafor and Ben Gordon, the Huskies were among the favorites to win the national title. The talented Heels were 10-3 and still learning their way under their new coach, but came in 11th in the nation, having blasted 8th ranked Georgia Tech at home the week prior, even though that game and this one sandwiched a close loss to Maryland in College Park.
UConn got buckets from Okafor and Gordon right off the bat, going up 8-2, looking as if Carolina would have its hands full from the get go. But the Tar Heels hit back, tying the game at the 12:18 mark on two David Noel free throws. Carolina would hold the lead for several minutes, before UConn slipped back out in front ahead of the 8:00 timeout, and a big alley oop to All-Ugly captain Charlie Villanueva gave the Huskies a 29-26 lead. But Felton found Noel for their own acrobatics the next trip down, Melvin Scott sank a three to tie the game, and the Heels rolled out a 22-5 run, including the last 12, over the final six minutes of the first session to take a 50-36 cushion to the break. The lead could’ve been more, but Reyshawn Terry was whistled for a bogus charging call on a fastbreak that erased a basket and Byron Sanders missed two free throws at triple zeroes after a scrum under the UConn basket.
The Huskies had no intentions of going quietly. After the lead stretched to 16, UConn ripped off a 15-2 spurt showing why they were the #1 team in the land, taking less than seven minutes to cut the lead to 61-60. A Gordon three after an Okafor stuff of Jackie Manuel gave UConn their first lead in over an hour with nine minutes left, a lead the Huskies maintained for much of the balance of the contest. Okafor got another basket inside with 1:30 to go to give UConn an 83-80 lead, which was wiped out the next time down by McCants, who took a pretty pass from Williams and drilled a three from the wing to tie the game, setting the stage for the finish.
UConn had two chances to take the lead, as Okafor corralled Villanueva’s missed jumper, and Gordon’s driving runner rimmed off. Williams grabbed the rebound and desperately whipped it off Okafor’s leg to maintain possession with 30 seconds left. Carolina their (what would become infamous) Long Beach set, and Felton hit McCants off a false backdoor cut for the go-ahead three with six seconds left. The Huskies’ last chance went to Gordon, whose spinning three at the horn barely grazed the front of the rim, setting off pandemonium at the Smith Center.
Okafor finished with a wild 29-13-6 blocks and the Huskies would ultimately win the national title.
Let’s make it a trifecta of games from Roy’s first season home.
It’s weird that it’s so hard to find material online for this one. If this game happens two or three years later, it’s a YouTube classic. But we were still stuck in pre-social media times for this classic, one of those goofy, collateral damage, December tilts, against Wake Forest. And this wasn’t your typical holiday break contest, as a hot crowd shelved their holiday plans and showed up en masse for Roy Williams’ first ACC game.
I personally don’t remember much, just that Roy threw shirts to the students, and that it was an old school, fast paced, ACC game between top 15 teams who threw haymakers at each other for the duration of the game. Wake came in ranked 14th, Carolina 4th, Chris Paul and Raymond Felton barked at each other all afternoon, and forty minutes wasn’t nearly enough to settle things, as the game went to overtime knotted at 88. The Tar Heels inched ahead 103-102 with 32 seconds left in OT on a three from Rashad McCants, but after Jawad Williams only hit one of two free throws, Paul was fouled shooting a three with one second left. With a chance to win the game at the line, Paul only sank two of three, sending the game to a second extra session.
Carolina had the shot to win the game in a sloppy double overtime, but McCants missed both free throws with the Heels nursing a two point lead (the only points scored in 2OT to that point), which allowed Wake to tie the game on an Erik Williams lay in. It finally ended in triple overtime, with Felton losing the ball on a busted play as Carolina searched for a tying three pointer and Williams hitting two freebies on the other end to give Wake the 119-114 victory.
If the game happens in March, we’d still be talking about it to this day. And if Carolina had pulled it out, it’d be higher on this list.
Coming off a last second home loss to Notre Dame five days prior, the Tar Heels welcomed new conference foe Louisville to the Dean Dome for a marquee early season ACC matchup. The Cards came in ranked 5th in the nation, carrying a 14-1 mark. While Carolina was 18th in the AP poll, the jury was still out on whether the 11-4 Tar Heels were capable of competing at the highest level. Two hours and some change after tip off, we’d have our answer.
After a back and forth first half that saw the teams head to the locker rooms tied at 34, the Cardinals came out hot and took control of the contest early in the second half with a 15-4 run bookended by Terry Rozier jumpers. Complicating matters for the Tar Heels, Marcus Paige rolled his ankle just as Carolina began to stem the tide. Louisville took advantage of Paige’s absence and extended the lead to 63-50 on a Wayne Blackshear three with 8:41 to play. Then the old Carolina magic got going.
A couple of free throws by Kennedy Meeks stopped this latest Cards spurt, and Paige went to the scorer’s table to check in as Joel Berry drained a three to perk the crowd up. The comeback was on. It wasn’t long before Paige reasserted himself and hit a three of his own to cut the margin to seven. A Brice Johnson dunk, J.P. Tokoto bucket, and two free throws from Nate Britt later, Carolina had sliced Louisville’s lead down to three heading into the final TV timeout.
The Cards, who seemingly couldn’t miss to start the second half, had gone ice cold with only two field goals over nearly seven minutes, and after Tokoto tipped in his own miss to pull Carolina within one, the Tar Heels finally climbed ahead on a Brice Johnson hook shot with 40 seconds to play. Louisville went to back to Rozier, who finished with a game high 25 points, and the Cards got the bucket they needed - a 14 footer from left of the paint - to push Louisville back in front with 25 seconds left.
Carolina was in the same situation they’d been in earlier in the week against the Fighting Irish: down a point, with the ball and a chance to win the game. That hadn’t gone well on Monday, as Paige only got a highly contested, desperation three from along the sideline that never really had a prayer of going in. This time was different. Paige drove left and down the lane, scooping a falling shot up high off the glass that fell thru the net with eight seconds to go, giving the Heels the lead. But there was one more stop to make. The Cards raced down the floor, 5 on 4 with Paige scrambling from the baseline floor to get back, and Blackshear got another three away from the corner. This was found back iron, but the rebound caromed to Rozier who managed to get off an off-balance jumper just beyond the outstretched hand of Justin Jackson. But Rozier’s game-winning try hit the glass, the rim, and fell harmlessly away as the horn sounded.
Everybody knows what happened here, including the things that the crack officiating crew completely missed in the final minute of the contest. No further comment.
I’ll be back next time for the top 10 games in Smith Center history. Plenty of good stuff to be had.
Spoiler: You will get more takes from Mikey on the NWA U.S. Title scene from 1986 thru 1990 than you will on PAC-12 or Big Ten football.