CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- In the days leading up to the 246th meeting of Duke and North Carolina, a lot of people tried to convince us that this was just another game. They really did.
During a lovely game-day drive across the Piedmont Region of North Carolina, every local sports talk radio show that fuzzed in and out of reception between Charlotte and the Triangle said, well, you know, this is just the February warm-up game. These are two teams merely in the process of getting ready for March. These aren’t classic rosters for either team. There are too many freshmen. Duke is good in the paint and Carolina is good at guard, and that’s backward. Duke just lost to St. John’s! Carolina has lost three out of its past four!
The Hall of Fame coach at the end of each bench spent his weekly media conference pleasantly, almost sentimentally, speaking of the contest. There was no grumpiness, only graciousness. Even when Roy Williams seemed to try to bait Mike Krzyzewski into a discussion over the ownership of “brotherhood” as a team mantra, K took the high road. Yawn. The closest the region came to any pregame rancor was when the neighboring towns’ visitors centers threw down a bet on the contest via Twitter on Thursday afternoon. The loser would be forced to write a poem about how nice the other town is. Yes, a poem.
“It feels flat, right?” UNC student James Broxton said one hour before the gates opened, standing with classmates in a line that ran more than a half mile from the back doors of the Dean Smith Center. “My roommates said, 'Hey, we are barely hanging onto the top 25.' Really? Are we that spoiled around here? I hope when we get into the building, the energy is better than this.”
It all almost worked. Almost. But by the time the final buzzer rang over UNC’s 82-78 comeback victory, college basketball’s greatest rivalry had erased any lingering feelings of meh.
To Mr. Broxton’s relief, the energy in the building was better right from the opening tip. By the way, that tip had to be held off for a few seconds. Why? Because the guy operating the arena lights got so worked up during the playing of “Jump Around” that he didn’t stop soon enough. As everyone paused for the illumination grid to refire, Williams looked at the table and said, “Really?”
February and freshmen be damned, the first half played like a video game, dominated by a particularly thrilling stretch that started five minutes into the matchup. It was sparked by a tomahawk slam from Duke’s Trevon Duval (a freshman) and ended with an equally thrilling lane drive by Gary Trent Jr. (also a freshman). During the three-and-a-half minutes in between, the teams traded four 3-pointers, a baby hook, a baseline reverse layup and a steal-fed court-length outlet pass that led to a shoulda-been dunk that became a layup. When play finally was stopped for a timeout, the score was tied 23-23.
“Defense appears to be optional!” a Carolina Blue-clad season-ticket holder turned and shouted toward press row. “Which one of y’all wrote that this game was going to suck?!”
At one stretch, Duke scored on 10 consecutive shots and extended its lead to a dozen. At the half, the lead was four. It felt like a lot more.
Carolina answered with a college hoops tradition that is nearly as old as James Naismith’s peach basket, the UNC start-of-the-second-half run.
“When they ran it up 14-0 at one point, you just think, I’m not sure we’re ready to answer this tonight,” Krzyzewski confessed after what looked to be his 46th win over Carolina turned into his 41st loss. “Did we get tired?” He responded to a question about the young Blue Devils’ stamina. “We didn’t get tired. We got tired of watching them get all those offensive rebounds in the second half.”
In the end, the higher-ranked team, No. 9 Duke, fell to the team that those roommates said was barely hanging onto its ranking, No. 21. In the end, the team that dominated the score sheet, seemingly able to do whatever it wanted in the first half (shooting 57 percent from the field, 30 points in the paint) fell to the team that spent the first half trying to get out of its own way. In the end, the team that traveled down highway 15-501 believing it was worthy of a 1-seed in March lost to a team that woke up on Thursday morning as part of the “teams who are going to be stuck in middle-seed hell” conversation.
In the end, it was Duke-Carolina -- despite all the best efforts to make us believe otherwise.
“Where’s my man who wrote that we were going to overlook Duke?” Williams said during his postgame media conference, scanning the sportswriters in the room and sounding exactly like that season-ticket holder during the first half. “I was like, 'Man, where are you from?'”
It is still the only mid-February college basketball game that ends with players wiping tears from their eyes as they walk to the losing locker room while the occupants of the other locker room are dancing around like they’ve made the Final Four, complete with a coach who sheds his sport coat so that he can fully achieve the desired celebratory dance moves. That’s what Roy Williams did.
“This is the only game we play that’s on two TV networks, and when everyone who has ever played for either team is here and offering up advice all the time, this is what you need to do,” Williams reminded after the game. He spoke of his team’s locker-room tradition, when he says, “Today’s game is the most important game we’ll play” and his team answers, “Because it’s the game we’re playing today.”
But even the man behind that mantra was willing to admit that wasn’t true on Thursday. So was the man who will be waiting for him up the road at Cameron Indoor Stadium in less than a month for the teams’ 247th meeting.
“The nature of sports today is to focus on the big picture, where everything fits into that big picture, and it makes sense to do that,” Krzyzewski said. “But this game is always its own big picture. If you don’t know that coming into Duke-Carolina, then you don’t really understand Duke-Carolina.”