Since the early 1960s, UNC and Duke have played in legendary contests that shaped the rivalry, and in a lot of ways the game of college basketball. From Dean Smith to Vic Bubas, Bill Foster, and Coach K the Tar Heels and Blue Devils competed against each other for ACC and national championships. After Smith retired before the 1997 season, many wondered if the rivalry would suffer after losing the greatest coach the college game had ever seen. Even with Bill Guthridge, and eventually, Matt Doherty running the Carolina program, the rivalry didn’t suffer in terms of hype. The only thing that changed, especially under Doherty, was that Duke was winning more often. Despite making two Final Fours under Guthridge, Duke was the more national power having won the national title in 2001, and losing in the final in 1999. A lot went into why Roy Williams returned in 2003 off the court, but make no mistake where UNC was on the court was a big reason Williams returned to his alma mater.
When Ol’ Roy returned to Carolina, UNC had lost 36 games in the last two seasons, including an 8-20 season, the worst in the history of the storied program. In his first season as the head coach, Doherty’s team won 18 straight games, including a road win in Cameron Indoor Stadium, but that team would fail to make it past the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament. Needless to say, when Williams returned to Carolina he had a lot of work to do, in terms of getting Carolina back to the top of the college basketball world in the ACC, let alone the country. To do so, he’d have to beat Duke, and once he did, we were treated to 18 healthy years of the best rivalry in sports.
5. February 20th, 2014. UNC 74 - Duke 66:
The first installment of the rivalry back in 2014, was delayed by 8 days after an ice storm rolled through the Triangle, and Duke was unwilling to make the trip 8 miles to play the Tar Heels. Carolina was in the midst of playing their best basketball that season, having won 7 straight games, after starting the ACC season 0-3, for the first time. Duke entered as the fifth ranked team in the country and were national title contenders behind the play of stellar freshman Jabari Parker. Duke would take a 37-30 lead into the half and appear well on their way to their fifth straight win over North Carolina, but as this rivalry always has, it produced an upset. The second half wasn’t pretty for either team, as the defense controlled this version of UNC-Duke. Carolina switched to a 1-3-1 zone defense for the first and only time ever under Roy Williams to hold Duke scoreless for over 6 minutes, which allowed UNC to erase a double digit deficit. That allowed Marcus Paige to work more of his second half magic, which eventually dubbed him the nickname “Second Half Paige”. Leslie McDonald hit a shot that gave Carolina a 62-60 lead that they would never relinquish on their way to a 74-66 win over Duke. The win over the Blue Devils meant that UNC had beaten the top four teams from the AP preseason Top 25 poll, the first team to ever do so in the poll era.
4. March 4th, 2017. UNC 90 - Duke 83:
In all of the runs to the national championships, there was a common theme: a win over Duke on Senior Night, with ACC and NCAA seeding implications. That was the case for UNC when they defeated Duke on March 4th back in 2017, on Kennedy Meeks, Isaiah Hicks, and Nate Britt’s Senior Night. Carolina had already wrapped up the ACC, the win over the #17 ranked Blue Devils all but assured UNC a #1 seed in the upcoming NCAA Tournament. Carolina was led by Joel Berry, who scored 28 points while shooting 5-5 from behind the arc. UNC once again erased a halftime deficit to take down their arch rival. UNC would lose to Duke in the ACC Tournament the following week before winning the 2017 national championship in Phoenix.
3. February 20th, 2019. UNC 88 - Duke 72:
Even though this matchup featured two of the top eight teams in the country, all the talk entering the contest was how Zion Williamson was going to be too much for the Tar Heels. UNC wasn’t believed to compete with Duke in Cameron Indoor Stadium, but the exact opposite happened. Williamson left less than a minute into the game, after blowing through his shoe and injuring his ankle. Behind Luke Maye’s 30 points and 15 rebound performance, UNC routed Duke 88-72 for the second largest win at Duke under Roy Williams. Cam Johnson added 26 points, despite not making a single three point shot. While this game wasn’t an instant classic, it set the tone for Carolina as they would go on to win 16 ACC games, a program record. Three weeks later, they would beat Duke at home to sweep the Blue Devils for the first time since 2009 in the regular season. The Tar Heels would go on to earn an #1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, before losing to Auburn in the Sweet 16.
2. March 3rd, 2012. UNC 88 - Duke 70:
The UNC-Duke rivalry is built on great games that decided who won the ACC regular season and positioned themselves for a #1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. This was the last time these two met with the ACC on the line. Carolina has played Duke many times on the final weekend, but had already wrapped up at least a share of the ACC, or had already won it outright. A few weeks earlier Duke beat UNC in Chapel Hill, despite trailing by 10 with less than 2 minutes left. Duke entered this contest as the #3 team in the country, while UNC entered ranked sixth. Like they did in 2019, UNC built a double digit lead that Duke could never recover from. All 5 starters scored in double figures, on their way to the largest win in Durham under Roy Williams. Carolina would go on to make the Elite Eight, before falling to Kansas. The 2012 team may have been the most complete team Roy Williams ever had, and if Kendall Marshall doesn’t suffer a hand injury...
1. March 6th, 2005. UNC 75 - Duke 73:
It might not be fair to put this much weight on one game, but it’s hard to imagine that UNC would’ve enjoyed the success they did, had they lost this game, which they almost did. Carolina was down 9 less than three minutes remaining before one of the most impressive comebacks in the rivalry took place. UNC finished the game on an 11-0 run to capture the outright ACC title, the first since 1993. Raymond Felton missed a foul shot that was recovered by Marvin Williams who banked it in to give UNC the lead while drawing a foul. That sequence is often referred to as the loudest the Smith Center has ever been. Sean May recorded a monster double double, posting 26 points and 24 rebounds in his final game in Chapel Hill. UNC would go on to win the first of three national championships in St. Louis.
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