The 30th season at the Smith Center has tipped off with Carolina's win over Fairfield on Sunday. I am counting down the 30 best games that the Tar Heels have ever played at the Dean Dome. If you missed parts one and two, I highly recommend you go check them out. Today we've got upsets, a Vince Carter sighting, and Dookies being Dookies.
Eighth ranked Carolina entered the final game of the 2007 regular season in a weird spot. A win would give the young, but talented Tar Heels a share of the ACC regular season title and the top seed in the conference tournament the following week. However, due to the two game losing streak Carolina was riding, a loss would drop UNC to the #5 seed and a Thursday date in Tampa. But that was the gist of the stakes entering the afternoon, because Duke had little to play for but pride.
The Blue Devils were fading in a hurry, suffering through their worst season in over a decade and just trying to get to the NCAA Tournament healthy, where they could hit the reset button and hope to make a deep run. Duke was looking at an extra game already in the ACC Tournament, so the odds of making noise the following week were long, but with NCAA seeding still in play, every game still counted for the Blue Devils. Especially against Carolina. But for more than 39 minutes, this one – particularly for a Carolina/Duke game – was underwhelming.
It was, of course, Senior Day in Chapel Hill. Wes Miller, Reyshawn Terry, and walk-on Dewey “Biscuits” Burke got starts for Carolina, and the Tar Heels jumped out to a 12-2 lead before the first TV timeout. Duke would hang around for the next ten minutes or so, and a Greg Paulus three pointer would pull Duke within five with a little under nine minutes left in the half. The Heels would stretch the lead back out behind an 11-3 run and took a 38-29 cushion into the locker room.
The Dookies put together a rally early in the second half, piecing together a 19-8 run of their own to claw back within two. But that was as interesting as the scoreboard would get, as Carolina had just too much firepower for the outmanned Blue Devils, shutting down Duke’s shooting for the next seven minutes and running the lead back out to 68-52 with five minutes and change remaining. There was no comeback to be had from this Duke bunch, and the clock ticked down toward the horn with little drama; Duke would hit a shot here or there, Carolina would get a bucket or free throws to sustain the margin. It was as uneventful a rivalry game as you can imagine between these two teams.
Until Tyler Hansbrough was fouled after grabbing an offensive rebound.
Bobby Frasor missed a free throw with 17.5 seconds left in an 84-72 game, and Hansbrough snagged the rebound. The sophomore from Poplar Bluff, Missouri had tallied 26 points this afternoon, was a 77% free throw shooter, but missed the first of two from the charity stripe. There was a sub (I believe it was Blue Team Hall of Famer Mike Copeland) at the table waiting to enter the game for Hansbrough after the second shot, but Hansbrough uncharacteristically missed that one, too.
Being the hyper-competitive player he is, Hansbrough barreled into the lane to crash the boards, ultimately corralling the rebound, his 17th of the game, as he had moments earlier on the Frasor miss. Hansbrough pivoted between defenders and went straight back up, getting fouled from behind. But the real contact came immediately after the whistle, and from the front.
Gerald Henderson had been on the low block, having somewhat boxed out Wayne Ellington on the shot. This halfassed effort left Henderson toward the right wing, about fifteen feet from the basket. Ellington, upon seeing Hansbrough come up with the ball, crossed the key at the free throw line, headed for the opposite wing, looking for the pass out of the double team Hansbrough now found himself in. With Ellington now crosscourt, Henderson not only had nobody to be defensively responsible for, but had a clear lane to sprint in and challenge Hansbrough’s putback.
But Henderson didn’t challenge the shot. He clobbered Hansbrough in the face with a forearm shiver, and instantly became one of the most hated Duke players in the history of the rivalry.
Hansbrough hit the deck hard and, upon seeing his own blood pool on the Carolina blue paint inches from his face, bounced right back up, looking to throw with anyone. Of all people, it was Burke – BISCUITS! – who happened to be the player closest by and instantly grabbed the bloody Hansbrough around the waist to keep things from really escalating. The referees, to their credit, quickly got order and sent Hansbrough to the locker room to clean up, then huddled to sort things out. When the smoke cleared, Henderson was ejected and escorted out of the arena to a serenade of boos and jeers, his legacy in Chapel Hill cemented for eternity.
The aftermath is what really gives this incident its legendary status. On the live broadcast, Billy Packer, in his last Duke/Carolina game for CBS, insisted that Henderson was clearly going for the ball, despite replay showing Henderson never extending his arm beyond a 90 degree angle at the elbow. Packer then went on to wonder aloud why Hansbrough was even in the game given the time and score, never asking why Henderson (not a Duke starter but getting starter’s minutes) was also still on the court. Give his track record, we expected this from Packer.
We didn’t expect the same load of crap from the head rat himself, Mike Krzyzewski.
“The game was over before that. I mean the outcome of the game, let's put it that way. That's unfortunate, too, that those people were in the game in that play. Maybe this wouldn't have happened." - Mike Krzyzewski
The leader who happens to coach basketball then proceeded to call Henderson “the real victim,” a quote which has seemingly been wiped from mainstream sports media on the internet, and basically denied any Duke responsibility for anything that happened. Kryzooski’s whining about Henderson being suspended for the first round of the ACC Tournament wound up funnier than we all first thought that Sunday after the Dookies were upset by NC State Thursday night in the first round of the conference tournament.
Hansbrough wore a mask for the ACC Tournament, where the Heels defeated the Cinderella Wolfpack for the crown. He’d symbolically take the mask off mid-game during the second round of the NCAA Tournament against Michigan State, as Carolina ran away from the Spartans in the second half. Carolina’s turbulent season ultimately ended in disaster in the East regional final, where Roy Hibbert committed approximately 39 personal fouls while somehow only getting called for four, and Georgetown rallied late to force OT and then dominated the entire extra session to send the Heels packing.
Duke, with Henderson in the lineup, lost to VCU in the first round.
It was already a big week at the Smith Center (SPOILER ALERT!) before the team from up the road came down 15-501 to tangle for another entry in the best rivalry in sports. Carolina, finding its way after losing Jerry Stackhouse and Rasheed Wallace from their Final Four team the year prior, was back in the top 10 and 6-1 in the conference and comfortably favored over the unranked Blue Devils, who were still recovering from their nightmare 1995 season (see last game for my opinion on Krzyzewski). The Tar Heels had won five in a row in the series, Duke’s longest slide against the good guys since the early days of Coach K’s tenure. But two fouls on freshman stud Antawn Jamison before the first TV timeout gave the Dookies an early advantage over the Tar Heels.
Duke’s backcourt of Jeff Capel and Chris Collins dominated the first half, taking advantage of six early UNC turnovers, running out to a 37-20 lead 16 minutes into the game after a long Capel bomb. Carolina would get it down to seven before a Carmen Wallace three and a Capel bank shot just before the buzzer pushed the Blue Devil lead back to 42-30 going into the locker room. Despite the two early fouls, Jamison still had 15 points at the break.
Carolina came out quick in the second half, with a couple of offensive putbacks by Jamison and the headbanded Serge Zwikker, forcing a quick Duke timeout. Two Jeff McInnis free throws would get the crowd on their feet and Krzyzewski would need another timeout after back to back buckets by Jamison, the latter being a monster one handed jam off a pretty feed from Ademola Okulaja to pull Carolina within 44-42. But Jamison would pick up his fourth foul the next time down (his third one was an awful charge call), so could the Tar Heels get over the hump with #33 on the bench?
Duke slowly crept away, as Ricky Price heated up for a bit, forcing Dean to send Jamison back in, The crowd woke back up on an alley oop to Vince Carter – the baseline inbounds play – for Carter’s first points of the evening. But another bucket from Price and a three from Capel gave Duke a 63-52 lead with 8:40 to play. The Tar Heels rallied. Jamison got another offensive board and putback, then Shammond Williams sank a three to cut the lead to 64-59, and two free throws by Okulaja brought Carolina within three. McInnis crashed the offensive glass and drew a foul to cut the margin to a single point, but Price drilled a trap-busting three to give Duke some breathing room with 4:50 remaining.
Then the big play happened: Jamison was whistled for his fifth foul, on phantom contact with legendary Duke big man Greg Newton, ending the Carolina freshman’s night at the four minute mark with 23 points and 13 rebounds. Newton and McInnis exchanged free throws, and the Blue Devils took a 68-65 cushion into the final TV timeout. After Capel missed a corner three that would’ve pushed it to six, Okulaja got a putback to bring it back to 69-68, but McInnis missed a bad three in transition that would’ve given the Heels the lead, only to see Wojo make the transition three on the other end to make it 72-68 with 1:10 to play. Williams answered that with a three of his own, sending the game into the final minute – Duke ball, with a one point lead.
Collins turned it over along the sideline with a half minute to go, but Carolina tried to give it right back when the pass McInnis left for Dante Calabria bounced off Calabria’s hands. Collins dove for the loose ball, but McInnis tied him up and the possession arrow favored the Tar Heels with 20 seconds left. With the game on the line, McInnis drove the lane and dished to Zwikker, but Newton blocked his shot from behind, and the ball caromed off the rim and backboard to Calabria, who tipped it in with six seconds left to give Carolina the lead, 73-72, their first lead in roughly two hours. Duke had a final chance to win the game, but Price’s 15 footer hit back iron as time expired.
Tasked with immediately restoring order to the program after a disastrous 2002 season, the young Tar Heels were still finding their way when sixth ranked UConn rolled into the Dean Dome in the middle of January. After a surprising Preseason NIT title, promising freshman big man Sean May had broken his foot in a late December loss to Iona, and the Heels were staggering, having dropped three of their last five.
Carolina blitzed the Huskies out of the gate, going up 23-4 in the first nine minutes, riling up a Smith Center crowd desperate to see a glimpse of greatness again. UConn battled back to within ten, but Rashad McCants drilled a shot clock-beating bomb to stem the tide and the Heels took a 38-27 lead into the half. The Huskies, however, had experience in dealing with double digit deficits, having been down big the prior four games, and UConn staged a rally. The Huskies pulled to 54-50 with under eight minutes to go, but Raymond Felton drew back to back fouls on UConn big man Emeka Okafor, sending him to the bench with four personals.
That only delayed the Huskies’ comeback, and Okafor’s dunk on a runout gave UConn their first lead of the contest with just over a minute left. But Carolina didn’t lose their cool, even though they’d lost their lead, and Jawad Williams sank a 17 footer from the left wing – just over the outstretched hand of Okafor – to swing the lead back to the Tar Heels with 56 seconds remaining. After Ben Gordon missed a three on the other end, Jackie Manuel grabbed the rebound, and the Tar Heels passed it around, trying to run it to the buzzer, as the shot clocks were off, unbeknown to the Huskies, who finally scrambled to foul McCants with just three seconds left. McCants hit both free throws, the last of his game high 27 points, and Gordon’s 25 footer rimmed off at the horn, triggering a court storming by the UNC students.
Despite the win, Carolina wasn’t back yet. The Tar Heels dropped their next five games and wound up in the NIT, giving Carmichael some unforeseen run. The Huskies would bring everyone back from this team and fight another day in Chapel Hill…
I remember the comeback. I remember the dunk. I remember the VHS tape on which I taped the SportsCenter highlights. I remember all of this stuff vividly 19 years later, so it must’ve been a hell of a deal.
So why is there almost no internet record of this game?
It was certainly worthy of sharing with future generations, because it was a tremendous contest between ACC heavyweights. Wake was ranked ninth in the land, 13-2, and the consensus favorite to win the conference behind junior Tim Duncan. It was a year of transition for the Tar Heels, but Carolina was ranked 11th, dropping close games in Atlanta and Austin to Tech and Texas, as well as a pair of games to a good Villanova team, one tight one in Maui and one rout in Philadelphia.
This one looked to be a rout in Chapel Hill. UNC posted their worst offensive output in a half in over a decade, shooting only 26%, and the Demon Deacons took a comfortable 32-18 lead into the locker room. And when Duncan scored with 17:24 left in the game, Wake held a 41-23 lead, with no sign of a fight from the home team. But Carolina began to stir, and went on a 12-2 spurt to bring it back to single digits.
As the team woke up, so did the crowd, and the Tar Heels chipped away a little at a time, finally going ahead on an Ademola Okulaja three pointer with two and a half minutes left. Jeff McInnis led the Heels with 20 points, and put Carolina ahead for good with a floater over Duncan with just over a minute to play, as Carolina ended the game on a ridiculous 42-18 run. The icing on the cake came after Tar Heel free throws put the game out of reach, as freshman Vince Carter caught a lob from McInnis for a reverse jam as time was running out, bringing down the house.
Wake would reach the Midwest regional final, where they got blown out by an absolutely loaded Kentucky squad. Duncan finished this game with 22 and would return for his senior season, ultimately dropping two of three to Carolina and never reaching the Final Four. The alley oop was one of many Carter highlights during his three seasons in Chapel Hill.
Another round of Duke/Carolina was on the docket for Wednesday, February 12, 2014. Carolina was riding a five game winning streak and in the process of righting the ship after a horrible 1-4 start in ACC play. A win over #8 Duke would solidify their standing in the league and serve notice to the rest of the conference that the Tar Heels would have a say in matters before the season was all said and done.
A winter storm crept into the Triangle hours before scheduled tip off, and it came in heavier than originally anticipated. Fans driving in were eventually met with gridlocked highways the closer they got to the Smith Center, and some parked their cars alongside the snow covered roads and hiked the rest of the way, for Mother Nature is no obstacle to witness the greatest rivalry in sports. UNC issued additional student tickets and had the standby line ready in the likely case some people never made it all the way in. The Tar Heels were there, the Dean Dome was staffed, the ACC officials were present, the students were ready.
And Duke never showed up.
Rather than plan ahead and leave early (classes were cancelled effective 10am, so no excuse there), Mike Krzyzewski stood by his usual plan of leaving a couple of hours before the game for the short drive down from Durham. Of course, given the snowfall that unfolded between 1pm and 4pm, by then the roads were completely impassable. Duke informed the league that they couldn’t make the trip, and the ACC officially controversially postponed the game at 5:40pm, to much hilarity on Twitter. The game was rescheduled for the following Thursday.
Duke’s lack of planning resulted in the Blue Devils facing three games in five days, their showdown with the Heels now being sandwiched between a trip to Atlanta to face Georgia Tech and their return game in Durham vs. Syracuse, which may as well have been hyped by ESPN to be the Thrilla in Manila, Magic vs. Bird, and the Miracle on Ice all wrapped into one college basketball game. The Dookies were suddenly a little busy. Carolina’s workload was also cramped, with a Saturday-Monday turnaround preceding the game, in which they dispatched Pitt and Florida State in close games, the latter on the road. That stretched the Tar Heels’ winning streak to seven, adding a little more fuel to the fire when Duke actually made it to the Smith Center on Thursday.
To say the Smith Center was juiced for this one would be an understatement. The eight day wait had felt like an eternity, and while the crowd wasn’t as student-heavy as it otherwise would’ve been the week prior, the people basked in the anticipation of this contest like a Doberman knowing its owner was coming home with steak in a doggy bag. The hottest Dean Dome gathering in years met the now fifth ranked Blue Devils and the Tar Heels jumped out to a quick 6-0 lead in the first minute. Duke wouldn’t stay down long, and Rodney Hood went off, scoring 11 of Duke’s 14 points over a three minute stretch after the first TV timeout to give Duke an 18-12 edge. The Tar Heels would stay close, but would only reclaim the lead once in the remainder of the half, on a Leslie McDonald layup, and Duke would end the half on a 6-2 spurt to take a 37-30 lead at the break.
The game would get weird in the second half. After going bucket for bucket to open the second session, back to back threes by Hood and Quinn Cook pushed Duke’s lead to nine, and a Jabari Parker basket with 15:10 to go would give Duke a 51-40 lead. At that point, Roy Williams decided to go into the ol’ bag of tricks, employing a combination of defenses to knock Duke out of its offensive rhythm, and switching between a 3-2 and a 1-3-1 zone was the answer. It would be nine minutes of game time before the Blue Devils made another field goal. The problem was that Carolina wasn’t filling it up either, as the Tar Heels only managed an 11-2 run, though it was more like a brisk walk, during Duke’s stretch of futility.
Cook finally got a layup out of the TV timeout to make it 55-51 with a little over six minutes to play, but Marcus Paige sank a three from the left wing to pull Carolina within one with 5:20 left, and anyone who hadn’t already been standing for the slow Carolina comeback was now on their feet and the Smith Center was an asylum the rest of the way home. After Cook answered with his own three, with the help of a generous bounce off the rim, McDonald drained two free throws and a James Michael McAdoo layup tied the game with 4:24 remaining in the game. The Duke lead was gone, and Krzyzewski wanted time. But Cook would miss the front end of a one and one, and the Tar Heels pulled ahead 62-60 on a long McDonald jumper from in front of the Carolina bench. That score would hold into the final TV timeout with under three minutes to go.
Paige hit a jumper off the right elbow out of the timeout, and Parker would match him with a pair of free throws, setting up the signature moment of the game. Paige isolated against Cook at the top of the key, drove him straight down the lane toward his right, then switched back to his left at the last second for a layup, high off the glass, among a sea of Duke arms, that fell thru the net as the Carolina point guard fell into the basket stanchion. 66-62 Tar Heels, and the Dookies would never get closer. Nate Britt drilled four clutch free throws to keep the Blue Devils at bay, and the defense made one more play, causing a tie-up that gave the ball back to Carolina, and McDonald got the last of his 21 points on a fastbreak layup when UNC broke Duke’s press, capping off a tremendous second half effort and bringing a week’s worth of anticipation to a satisfying conclusion.
The Carolina winning streak would run to 12 before the Blue Devils bested the Tar Heels in the rematch in Durham, in which Carolina fell way behind, clawed back to single digits with two minutes left, but couldn't get over the hump. The Heels would fall in the ACC Quaterfinals to Pitt while Duke lost to Virginia in the conference title game. Duke would be upset by Mercer in the first round of the NCAA's, but Carolina would also go home on opening weekend, blowing a late lead and losing to Iowa State in the final seconds.
I'll be back after Thanksgiving to hit #11 thru #15, where we'll see OT classics, some clutch Carolina shots, and grand larceny of the highest order.
In celebration of the Smith Center's 30th season, I'm counting down the 30 best Carolina games ever to be played in the House That Dean Built. If you missed Part 1, you should go check it out. Three Carolina losses in the first five games on the list? Yup. There aren't many more.
“The Snow Game.”
It’s possibly the most random game on this list. There wasn’t a memorable finish. There wasn’t a ridiculous individual performance. It wasn’t a back and forth war. But the story of the Dean E. Smith Center cannot be told without this contest.
Carolina entered this contest 11-8, 2-3 in the ACC, and riding a four game losing streak. Two years removed from the Final Four, the 2000 Tar Heels appeared to be in a freefall, going from 6th in the AP poll to out entirely in the span of four weeks. With 22nd ranked Maryland, led by young studs Juan Dixon, Steve Blake, and Lonny Baxter, coming into Chapel Hill midweek, the Heels’ fortunes didn’t seem to be improving anytime soon. Though we’d find out otherwise two years later, this felt like rock bottom.
Then the snow started to fall.
The white stuff fell on Monday. Then Monday night. Then more fell on Tuesday. More than 16 inches had come down in Chapel Hill by the time it was all said and done, even more in the surrounding areas, and there was no way the game was being played as scheduled Wednesday night. Somehow, though, unlike another team just up the road 14 years of technological improvements later, Maryland made it to Chapel Hill, and the game was played 24 hours later, with roads around the Triangle in bad enough shape to leave probable attendance up in the air.
But for as many people who were trapped at home, there were thousands of students trapped on campus, needing something to pass the snow-covered time. And what better than a basketball game with Carolina’s season on the ropes? Thus, an unusually younger crowd occupied the lower bowl of the Smith Center on a Thursday night in January for a huge ACC showdown with the Terrapins. And the atmosphere was noticeably different from the opening tip.
The Terps rode out a quick 6-0 start by Carolina, got ahead by as much as 11, and led 41-34 at the half. The Tar Heels managed to stay close only by a 15-16 effort at the stripe. But early in the second half, everything came together. With the Terps up 47-45, Terence Morris drained a corner three with Jason Capel’s hand in his face to push the Maryland lead back to five. Kris Lang, still recovering from a respiratory virus, instantly answered with a dunk. Julius Peppers would knock away a Maryland pass, and Joseph Forte would find Capel for a layup, and then Max Owens would nail a three from the left corner to give Carolina a 52-50 lead. The Terps would turn it over again, and the teams would exchange possessions before Ed Cota swished a three from the top of the key. Then, Brendan Haywood would drain a short jumper in the paint to make it 57-50 UNC with 11:00 left to play, and Lang got a hook shot on a pretty feed from Cota to cap the 14-0 run and send the Dean Dome into a frenzy.
The Terps weren’t done, and a putback jam by Baxter with 9:00 left pulled Maryland back within five. It would hover around that margin until Dixon got a bucket on a drive to bring the Terrapins back to within 62-60. But a Peppers layup and a Haywood rebound jam off a Cota miss would push the Heels away for good. Haywood finished with 23 points, Carolina won 75-63, and the students stormed the court afterward – a strange thing to do when you’re a perennial power and the opponent is not even ranked in the top 20, but given the bizarre circumstances, it actually made sense.
This Maryland bunch would ultimately accomplish big things. While they’d only reach the second round of the 2000 NCAA Tournament, they would advance to the Final Four the two seasons afterward, and captured the 2002 NCAA Title. Carolina wouldn’t entirely turn the season around on this game, but it would right the ship long enough in March to make a run to the Final Four as an 8 seed. But the lasting impression from this contest came the following season, when new coach Matt Doherty, pointing to this game as rationale, was finally able to work out a deal with the Rams Club to get a sizeable student section in the lower bowl for the first time in the 15 year history of the arena.
There were some lofty expectations placed upon the 2006-07 Tar Heels. The totally overhauled Heels had struggled early the prior season, but rallied to run the table in the back half of the conference schedule – including spoiling J.J. Redick’s Senior Night in Durham – only to get upset in the second round of the NCAA’s. With the core of that group back, and a tremendously loaded incoming freshmen class, Carolina was picked by many to make a return to the Final Four. This game, the main event in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge, was their first marquee showdown.
The Heels had been punched in the mouth already, having been upset by Gonzaga at Madison Square Garden in the Preseason NIT semifinals the week prior, so the jury was still out on just how good this bunch was. With top ranked Ohio State coming to the Smith Center, Carolina would have their chance to impress the nation in a much-hyped, primetime, ESPN affair. The Buckeyes may have been the #1 team in the nation, but they, too, were vulnerable, as ballyhooed freshman big man Greg Oden was not ready for action yet, still recovering from wrist surgery in the offseason, forcing Ohio State to run with a small lineup.
The result was a track meet, which is exactly how Roy Williams likes it.
The Bucks got out in front early, scooting to a 12-4 lead after Ron Lewis’ three point play that quickly sent Carolina freshman center Brandan Wright to the bench with his second foul before the first TV timeout. The Heels pounded it inside to stay close, with buckets by Tyler Hansbrough, Deon Thompson, and Alex Stepheson, but Ohio State would go on an 11-4 spurt behind hot shooting from Lewis and Daequan Cook to go up 33-23 going into the under eight timeout. Then the Heels swung back again, getting back to back threes from Bobby Frasor and a big jam by Hansbrough to cut the margin back to two and get Buckeyes’ head coach Thad Matta to call for time. Carolina would draw as close as one on a Danny Green jam on a nice pass from Frasor, but would get no closer before the half, with Ohio State taking a tenuous 48-44 lead into the locker room. The game was right where Roy wanted it.
Carolina jumped the Bucks right out of the gate in the second half, back to back Hansbrough buckets tied the game, and UNC would get its nose out front for the first time all night on a Reyshawn Terry follow up just over two minutes into the half, and Wayne Ellington would sink a three to make it a 9-0 run before the Bucks finally got on the board again. After another Ellington bomb, Ohio State streaked back, reclaiming the lead on three consecutive Ivan Harris threes, with three buckets from Wright keeping Ohio State from really stretching it out before the Buckeyes went cold again. Hansbrough would put Carolina back in front with a tough bucket in traffic with 8:29 left, and when Terry sank a three from the right wing in front of the bench, it capped off a 15-2 Carolina run, giving the Heels their biggest lead of the evening at 75-68.
Harris finally broke the run with a jumper the next time down, but that would ultimately be as close as Ohio State would get in the final seven minutes, as Ellington drained his third trey of the night the ensuing possession and the Heels would hit enough free throws down the stretch to keep the top ranked Bucks at bay. Ellington finished with 19, and Hansbrough put up 21 points to go along with 14 rebounds, taking advantage of the thin Ohio State front line. Ohio State’s Lewis led all scorers with 30. The victory marked the third consecutive season Carolina had defeated the #1 ranked team in the nation, and was another step toward their ultimate destiny: a national title two seasons later.
We didn’t know it at the time, but Coach Smith’s final game in the building that bears his name was Senior Day ’97. After starting 0-3 in ACC play, Carolina had flipped a switch in mid-January, running off 11 wins in their next 13 games, including the last eight heading into this one. Their last loss? A turnover-filled 80-73 decision at Cameron Indoor Stadium, where Duke had finally snapped a seven game slide against the Tar Heels.
Wake Forest was upset the day prior in Tallahassee, giving the Blue Devils the ACC regular season title and finalizing both teams’ ACC Tournament seeding, taking a tad of the luster off yet another showdown between Top 10 teams. But it was still Carolina-Duke, so it still mattered. Any question of whether it didn’t matter to Duke was answered early, when the Blue Devils jumped out to an 8-2 lead with the seldom-used Carolina seniors were on the floor. Duke would keep the Tar Heels at bay early with a barrage of three point shots, going up as much as eight half way thru the first half. Carolina continued to pound the ball inside to Antawn Jamison, finally getting even on an Ed Cota offensive rebound and putback, then going in front with a classic Cota to Jamison runout bucket with about 5:00 left in the first half.
The run would get to 12-0 before Trajan Langdon hit another three for Duke, the long ball being the only thing keeping Duke from getting blown out. Carolina would stretch the lead out to 14 before Duke hit back to back threes in the final minute, and the Tar Heels took a 49-40 lead into the locker room. Duke would chip away early in the second half, closing within five before a Jamison jam and layup on back to back trips swung the pendulum back in Carolina’s direction. The Blue Devils would punch back, and after Ricky Price converted a three point play with 11:15 to play, Duke found itself back at 61-58. But Carolina was relentless on the boards, ultimately outrebounding Duke 49-18, and it was a rebounding scrum that saw Duke’s Roshawn McLeod get tangled up with teammate Greg Newton and knock the ACC Player of the Year out of the game.
The Heels would take off on another spurt, running the lead out to 82-69 with 5:30 remaining on a “Cota Floata” off a loose ball melee. The Blue Devils had one final push, getting the rare five point play with a Price three and simultaneous loose ball “foul” on Jamison for supposedly sending Langdon to the floor when battling for rebounding position – 17 feet from the hoop – to slash the lead to six. And when Jeff Capel drained ANOTHER three in the corner off a Tar Heel turnover, the lead was suddenly down to four with 1:51 to go. But, within striking distance, Duke would badly miss their final two three point attempts of the afternoon, and Carolina would hit their free throws in the final minute for the final margin.
Duke’s season crumbled after the loss, getting upset, as the top seed, in the ACC quarterfinals by NC State, then getting bounced from the NCAA Tournament in the second round by Providence. Carolina would stay hot, running the table in Greensboro to capture the ACC Tournament, earning the #1 seed in the NCAA East Regional. En route to the Final Four, the Tar Heels made Coach Smith the winningest head coach in college basketball history with their second round win over Colorado in Winston-Salem. The dream died in Indianapolis in a semifinal loss to Arizona.
In a rivalry filled with tense moments, this one was as close as it’s gotten to a full scale brawl since the days of Larry Brown and Art Heyman back in the 60’s. In the course of battle, players may get into it – which we’ll probably see later on this list – but when coaches go face to face ready to throw hands, you obviously have yourself a wild situation.
Carolina was desperately hanging on to a thread of NCAA Tournament hope when Duke came down 15-501 for Senior Day. A year removed from rock bottom, Matt Doherty had brought in a freshman class that was supposed to restore order to the program. Raymond Felton, Sean May, and Rashad McCants came in with high hopes, but after a promising start that included capturing the Preseason NIT crown and a semifinal win over Roy Williams’ final Kansas team, May broke his foot in a loss to Iona at the end of December. Facing the 3rd toughest schedule in the nation, Carolina would flounder around .500 the rest of the season, not quite the turnaround Tar Heels fans were looking for.
It was also a down year for Duke, though not to the depths Carolina had sunk. The 2003 Blue Devils were their only squad between 1998 and 2006 that wouldn’t enter the NCAA Tournament as a #1 seed, but they were still a formidable foe, nevertheless, led by wannabe tough guy, Rutgers transfer Dahntay Jones. Jones had developed a reputation in his two years in Durham, most notably breaking the jaw of Wake’s Justin Gray with a hard screen and dunking on some hapless Virginia defender (recommended for Brad Daugherty's call more than anything else) and doing pushups right next to him after everyone landed on the floor.
So when Jones sent Raymond Felton caroming into the scorer’s table as the two chased a loose ball in the second half, it wasn’t a surprise. And when Jones caught Felton with an “inadvertent” palm to the face when tracking a rebound with a little over eight minutes left, it was par for the course. (Why Jones would throw his hand behind him when the ball was in front of him, I’ll let you decipher.) The officials decided that there was no foul, despite the fact that Felton fell to the floor with a bloody mouth. Doherty walked down to the Duke end of the court, where Felton was still down on the court. The Carolina trainers got the young point guard up and headed back toward the bench on his own power.
Then all hell broke loose.
As Doherty and the Tar Heels began to walk back toward the Carolina bench, Duke assistant and [insert derogatory noun here] Chris Collins said something to McCants. Doherty took offense to another coach talking to his players, particularly in the heat of such a moment, and turned and got in Collins’ face. As the coaches went face to face, Duke benchwarmer Andre Buckner (he of 27 career points) stepped out from the bench and shoved Doherty. McCants and Jawad Williams immediately jumped in between Bucker and Collins and Doherty and the referees pulled the two teams apart as Felton stormed back down the sideline, with the trainer still holding him by the back of his jersey. When the smoke cleared, Jones, Collins, and Buckner were all ejected and Carolina had free throws to shoot.
Oh wait, that’s right, nobody was even T’ed up after all of the shenanigans.
The game tensely continued, but after Duke tied the game with 2:30 to go, Carolina went ahead for good with a McCants three and a Jackie Manuel layup. Duke’s final chance to tie was a half court look from Jones, who sank a 45 footer a half second too late. The shot was waved off and the Heels survived. McCants finished with 26 points, and the wounded Felton turned in a heroic 18-8-10, two assists shy of a triple double.
The teams would meet one week later in the ACC semifinals, where Duke assistant Johnny Dawkins refused to shake Doherty’s hand before the game. The Dookies would win the rematch, and Doherty would be let go at the conclusion of the Tar Heels’ NIT run. Roy Williams would return home within weeks.
Oh, and Dahntay Jones would continue to be a punk his entire NBA career.
State finally makes an appearance on the list, fittingly during the 1988 campaign, the only season in the past 37 years that the Triangle schools finished 1-2-3 alone atop the conference. The Wolfpack came into the Smith Center on a five game winning streak, ranked 16th in the nation, having knocked off Duke at Cameron five days earlier when Chucky Brown picked off Danny Ferry’s outlet pass with seconds remaining. Carolina was 6th in the polls and had shot 66% in a victory over State at Reynolds 77-73 two weeks earlier. The teams were tied at 5-2 in the ACC, and a Carolina win would give the Tar Heels the season sweep and put Carolina in the driver’s seat for the conference crown.
State jumped Carolina from the tip, going up as much as 32-19 in the first half. Young Rodney Monroe would begin to earn is “Ice” moniker, among a trio of Wolfpack players who tallied eight points in the first half, including two threes, as State shot 65% to start the game. Carolina couldn’t get out of its own way, turning the ball over nine times and leaving cheese at the foul line to the tune of 56%. The Wolfpack, however, would go cold in the final five minutes, and the Heels went on a run to end the half, capped off by a Kevin Madden three pointer, drawing Carolina within a point, 35-34, at the break.
The Tar Heels stayed hot out of the locker room, going out front for the first time on a Ranzino Smith jumper from the elbow, then continuing to pour it on. The freshmen would get involved in the second half, with Rick Fox getting a baseline jam to put the Heels up five, Pete Chilcutt getting an offensive board and putback to make it seven, and Fox driving baseline and bringing down the house with a facial on both Brown and Charles Shackleford to make it 49-41, as State scored nine points in about 15 minutes of game time. Jimmy V switched up defenses to try to slow down Carolina, going to a triangle and two (presumably while Carolina assistant Roy Williams was in the bathroom or something) on Jeff Lebo and J.R. Reid.
Lebo wouldn’t let State set their defense, though, finding Chilcutt and Ranzino on outlet passes in transition for layups to push the lead to double digits for the first time. Only long balls from Vinny Del Negro and Chris Corchiani finally stalled the Tar Heel momentum momentarily, but Scott Williams would join in on the fun, also dunking on Shackleford. A long Ranzino jumper makes it 61-53 with about five minutes left and it feels like Carolina’s night. However, with the lead still eight with under three minutes left, the Wolfpack finally put together a big defensive stop, forcing an awful desperation heave by Williams to avoid a shot clock violation, and State’s Brian Howard would get fouled on an offensive rebound on the other end with two minutes to play. Howard missed the first shot, but was apparently the only player on the court who realized it was a 1-and-1 situation and sprinted into the lane and immediately laid it back in for two, leaving everyone in the building confused and dumbfounded.
That bizarre bucket would trigger a State rally. Steve Bucknall continued his struggles at the line, only making one of two freebies, and Monroe answered with a short jumper in traffic to cut the UNC lead to 65-60 with 1:26 to go. Valvano directs his guys to foul Bucknall again, but this time Bucknall hits both. State still comes out a point ahead on the transaction, however, when Monroe drains a three pointer to make it 67-63. Reid is the lucky recipient of the intentional foul this time down, and misses the front end of the 1-and-1, and a baseline jumper by Brown pulls State within two with the shot clock turned off. Before looking to foul, the Wolfpack trapped, and it paid off when Brown jumped in front of a Bucknall pass up top, sending the Wolfpack big man of to the races. Brown missed the layup, but Corchiani was there for the tap in to tie the game with 22 seconds left. Lebo drove the lane to try to win the game, but the amphibious Shackleford swatted his layup out of bounds, and Lebo subsequent three at the horn found nothing but air, sending the game to an improbable overtime, tied at 67.
The teams traded buckets to open OT, Reid scoring on an alleyoop layup from Ranzino, and Brown getting a putback dunk on uncalled offensive goaltending. Williams got a dunk off the secondary break to put Carolina ahead 71-69 with 1:39 to go, and the third Tar Heel freshman, King Rice, would make two plays to seal the game. Valvano made the decision to not put the shaky freshman foul shooter at the line, and Rice made him pay, hitting Reid in the lane for a bucket to put the Heels up four with 35 seconds remaining. Del Negro sank two free throws to keep State within a possession, but Rice dribbled out of the half court trap and found Williams wide open at the basket for the jam to clinch it. Corchiani would hit a meaningless runner at the buzzer for the final tally.
Carolina would go on to win the ACC regular season crown, finishing ahead of runner-up NC State by one game. The Wolfpack wouldn’t get a rematch, falling in the ACC semifinals to Duke, who they’d swept in the regular season, and ultimately getting upset in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, as a #3 seed, to Murray State. Carolina would reach the West regional final, where their shooting went stone cold, and dropped a 70-52 decision to a loaded Arizona squad in Seattle.
I'll be back in a week or so for the next five games, where we'll find Dookies being Dookies and VInce Carter dunking on fools.
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.