The 258th meeting between Duke and North Carolina is set for Saturday at Caesars Superdome in New Orleans as the two bitter rivals prepare to meet in the NCAA Tournament for the first time. It's not hyperbole to suggest that it will be the most important game ever played in college basketball's biggest rivalry, especially given the shifting dynamics of both programs.
This marks North Carolina's first season under coach Hubert Davis, and it marks Duke's last season under Mike Krzyzewski. The fact that these schools areunder those circumstances after splitting their regular season series is a twist that even Hollywood might have seen as far-fetched.
But how the game is viewed 20 years from now will depend on a few things. First, if the victor goes on to win the national title on Monday, the Final Four game will enjoy a much stronger historical standing. But even if one of these two does not wind up winning the national championship, a close game in the Final Four with a thrilling finish would be remembered fondly. Even in the absence of those two elements a Duke vs. North Carolina meeting in the Final Four will be remembered in college basketball history.
And if it's a thrilling finish that also produces Monday night's national champion? Well, then it will go down as one of the most significant games in college basketball history.
These two have combined to play some incredible games over the years. Let's take a look back at some of the most memorable.
Coach K's first win over North Carolina
Feb. 28, 1981: Duke 66, North Carolina 65 (OT)
Krzyzewski's first win over North Carolina is memorable for more than just the fact that it was his first. It was a phenomenal game that Duke won 66-65 in overtime thanks to the heroics of Gene Banks. The Blue Devils' senior forward hit a contested jump shot from just behind the free-throw line at the regulation buzzer to force overtime. Then, he added six points in overtime as Duke took down a UNC team that eventually reached the national title game.
Rough times still awaited Krzyzewski, who went just 21-34 over his second and third seasons. He lost his next six games against the Tar Heels. However, beating UNC after two losses against them earlier in the season brought a positive ending to his first regular season on the job.
That UNC team featured eventual three-time NBA champion James Worthy, a Lakers legend who earned NBA Finals MVP honors in 1988 and was a seven-time All-Star. A glimpse back at footage from the contest is also a great reminder of Krzyzewski's longevity in college basketball. The 3-point line was still several seasons away from collegiate implementation, and the shorts players wore were disturbingly short.
Few in attendance that day could have imagined what Krzyzewski's career would become. In fact, many would doubt him, as it wasn't until his fourth season on the job that Duke became ranked for the first time in his tenure. But in retrospect, the game was an apt foreshadow of all the great clashes to come between Krzyzewski and UNC coach Dean Smith in the first half of Coach K's tenure.
As for his first road victory in the series, that did not come until Jan. 19, 1985, when No. 2 Duke knocked off No. 6 UNC 93-77. But thanks to Banks, who went on to play professionally in the NBA and overseas before a stint in coaching as an assistant with the Wizards, Krzyzewski did beat the Tar Heels in his first season as coach. - David Cobb
Blue Devils' big rally gives Coach K his 500th win
Feb. 28, 1998: Duke 77, North Carolina 75
Krzyzewski's 500th career victory came on Feb. 28, 1998 against a UNC squad that featured Antawn Jamison and Vince Carter. The win also clinched the outright ACC title for the Blue Devils and gave them a 27-2 record entering the postseason. Things didn't go as planned from there as Duke lost in the ACC title game against North Carolina and was eliminated from the NCAA Tournament in the Elite Eight by Kentucky.
But No. 1 Duke's 77-75 win over No. 3 North Carolina nevertheless stands the test of time as one of the all-time bests from the series. Duke roared back from 13 down in the second half and got revenge after the Tar Heels crushed them 97-73 earlier in the month, and the ending was downright chaotic.
Roshown McLeod put Duke ahead 77-75 with a minute left, and though no one else scored, the ending got weird. UNC point guard Ed Cota drew a foul with 3.8 seconds left and went to the free-throw line with a chance to tie. He missed the first shot, then missed the second intentionally to give the Tar Heels a shot at the offensive rebound.
It worked, as Brendan Haywood corralled the miss and was fouled on his put-back attempt with 1.2 seconds remaining. Haywood also missed his first shot. Like Cota did before him, Haywood missed the second as well to give UNC another opportunity. The Tar Heels tipped the rebound up in the general direction of the basket, but it didn't go in, and the final buzzer sounded amid a scrum for the basketball. Between all the timeouts and stoppages, the final 9.5 seconds took more than six minutes of real time, and this was well before the era of replay reviews.
Once it was finally over, the Cameron Crazies quickly stormed the court as Krzyzewski and beloved senior point guard Steve Wojciechowski embraced in a hug, celebrating an unlikely comeback against an arch rival who'd blown them out just weeks before.
From those two rosters came eight eventual first-round NBA Draft picks, while Brand, Carter and Jamison went on to be NBA All-Stars. Several from that game have also gone on to high-profile coaching and front-office jobs. Langdon is the general manager of the New Orleans Pelicans, Chris Carrawell is a Duke assistant, Wojciechowski recently wrapped up a seven-year stint as Marquette's head coach, Brand is the GM of the 76ers. Wing Nate James, who was out injured for Duke, is now the coach at Austin Peay. And that just covers the Duke players.
Krzyzewski's 500th victory couldn't have come in a crazier setting, against a more significant opponent or in more dramatic fashion. – Cobb
Brendan Haywood redeems himself
February 1, 2001: North Carolina 85, Duke 83
From a basketball perspective, especially for someone who was raised in North Carolina and by extension on the Duke-UNC rivalry, it was a total nightmare. Two missed free throws in the closing seconds of a two-point loss to Duke in 1998. That was the lowlight of Brendan Haywood's freshman season in Chapel Hill. It didn't haunt him, per se. But it was a bad memory that lingered.
Fast-forward to 2001.
Haywood, now a senior playing for Matt Doherty — who had replaced Bill Guthridge after the longtime assistant to Naismith Memorial Hall of Famer Dean Smith had guided the Tar Heels to two Final Fours in a three-year span — got fouled late again, this time by Duke legend Shane Battier. It was a tie game when referee Mike Wood blew his whistle. There were only 1.2 seconds remaining in regulation. Haywood went to the line with an opportunity to decide this game between rivals that were ranked second (Duke) and fourth (North Carolina) in the Associated Press Top 25 poll.
"I was definitely thinking about freshman year as soon as I got fouled," Haywood told reporters after the game. "I knew that I was in the exact same situation as before, even though I took a different route to get there. So I said, 'Let's go out there and hit these free throws for this team.' And I did."
Indeed, he did.
The 7-foot center finished his four-year college career as a 59.1% free-throw shooter, which underlines just how much of a sure thing Haywood making those free throws was not. But the future 13-year veteran of the NBA (who won a championship with the Dallas Mavericks in 2011) calmly sank those two in that wild setting to lift the Tar Heels to an 85-83 victory. It was Haywood's final game inside Cameron Indoor Stadium and a reversal in every way of his freshman-year crunch-time misses. – Gary Parrish
Coach K faces new UNC coach Roy Williams
Feb. 5, 2004: Duke 83, North Carolina 81 (OT)
When I think vintage UNC-Duke battles, this is the exact type of game that comes to mind. Some months or years from now, when Krzyzewski allows himself to look back on the moments that made his career so special, I think this will rank among the most cherished regular season games. We're now a generation removed from this one, which is notable because it marked the first time Coach K faced off against Roy Williams in a Duke-UNC game. The Blue Devils were the No. 1 team and carried an 18-1 record. UNC was coming off the Matt Doherty era and had a 13-5 record but also was ranked No. 17 in the AP poll.
The Tar Heels had Sean May, Rashad McCants, Raymond Felton and Jawad Williams -- the same guys who would, 14 months later, guide a 33-4 Heels to a national title. Duke had sophomores J.J. Redick and Shelden Williams, freshman Luol Deng, senior Chris Duhon. It was undefeated in ACC play.
UNC had finally convinced Roy to come home. The Tar Heels had lost four of their previous five home games to the Blue Devils. This game came at a time when college basketball was bigger in the sporting culture than it is now. ESPN would practically build its entire week of programming around this game. One-and-done players were rare. The internet wasn't even a teenager at this point, podcasts didn't exist and neither did social media. Grant Hill was donning a smooth-fitting turtleneck in the stands. A different time.
And nobody knew for sure if UNC would regain its credentials under Williams. Of course it did, in short order, but this night was about Duke's continued dominance. I implore you to watch the video below. Scan through, take in a few minutes here and there, feel what the sport used to look like. Perhaps Saturday can give us that again. Carolina and Duke were close all throughout regulation. Jawad Williams' trey late in regulation tied the game. In OT, Rashad McCants cashed a 3-pointer with 13.5 seconds to go. Duke didn't take a timeout, Duhon found a crease, went for a reverse layup and made it to give Duke the win after a UNC 3-pointer went begging as time expired.
Shelden Williams was a hoss: 22 points, 12 rebounds, five blocks. Daniel Ewing (an underrated Duke player all these years later) had 19 points, Deng added 17. Redick, two years away from being player of the year, had 14. Meantime, McCants, who was prone to huge performances, had 27.
Afterward, Krzyzewski said, "I think you do it an injustice to say it was a great Duke-Carolina game. It was a great game. You can't match the intensity level."
Perhaps Saturday night's game will. -- Matt Norlander
Roy's first win vs. Coach K as UNC coach
March 6, 2005: North Carolina 75, Duke 73
In just his second year back at his alma mater, Roy Williams had already brought North Carolina back to the top of the sport. Heading into the final game of the regular season, the Tar Heels were No. 2 in the AP Top 25 and one win away from clinching the program's first outright ACC regular season title since 1993. But for North Carolina basketball to feel "back," there needed to first be a reversal of fortunes in the games that mean the most: a win against Duke.
Williams lost his first three games in the rivalry, and in total the program entered the second Duke game in 2005 having lost 10 of the last 11 in the series. So when Duke flipped a 64-64 game into a nine-point Blue Devils lead with three minutes remaining, it wasn't misguided to guess a familiar heartbreaking script was playing out for the Tar Heels. But North Carolina finished the game on an 11-0 run to cement one of the most dramatic wins of the Roy Williams era.
That run, and those final minutes, were not aesthetically pleasing. North Carolina did a good job of getting stops and forcing turnovers, but both teams were having trouble getting the ball in the basket. Luckily for the Tar Heels, they had a lineup ready to win on the glass – UNC rebounded 52.5% of their missed field goals in the win – with Sean May extending a double-double streak with 26 points and 24 rebounds.
Great rebounding performances would be a core piece of Roy Williams' North Carolina teams, so it's fitting that his first win against Duke came not just of an elite rebounding performance but specially an offensive rebound and second chance points. After hitting his first free throw to cut the Duke lead to one point with 19.4 seconds remaining, Raymond Felton missed the potential game-tying free throw. Three Duke players and Sean May got at least a hand on the ball in the lane but never got a hold, and the possession ended up with Marvin Williams, the ACC Rookie of the Year that season. Williams put the shot up as soon as he had a decent handle, drew contact on the way up that got a foul and his short bank shot dropped to give North Carolina the lead with 17 seconds remaining.
The crowd reaction to Williams' go-ahead bucket has been widely accepted as one of the loudest moments in the history of the Smith Center. Felton missing the potential game-tying free throw sparked a terrifying cry of familiar pain, but less than three seconds later the 22,000-plus in attendance saw their team's fortunes yanked in the opposite direction. The building's pop was palpable and resonated across the country on a national CBS broadcast. After a long run of Duke dominance, this 2005 team – that would go on to win Roy Williams' first national championship – had turned the tide in the rivalry. – Chip Patterson
Hansbrough's bloody beak
March 4, 2007: North Carolina 86, Duke 72
Yes, there are games with double-digit margins in this rivalry's history that are historic and memorable despite not being classics on the scoreboard. We simply have to include this moment, as it's the physical, corporeal embodiment of what Duke-North Carolina is marketed as. The game, as you can tell by the score, was not particularly close. In fact, Duke wasn't all that great in 2006-07. That was the year the Blue Devils were a trendy upset pick in the first round vs. VCU, which in fact happened. (Duke, oddly, had two four-game losing streaks that season.) North Carolina, meantime, finished that season No. 1 at KenPom.com (which at that point was barely referenced or recognized; the rankings system was only a few years into its existence).
The point I'm making here is that the game wasn't all that great but the moment the game produced will live in Duke/UNC hype montage reels until the sun swallows our planet. When Gerald Henderson decided to drop his elbow into Tyler Hansbrough's nose with less than 15 seconds remaining in a game that was already decided, it busted Hansbrough's beak and caused a gush of blood to pour out. Henderson got ejected, Hansbrough left the game to get himself cleaned up and healed. He wore a specialized mask in the weeks to come, in an era that's strangely been forgotten.
Henderson always maintained the foul was not intentional, but seeing it all these years later, it's still hard to say that's 100% the case. Even still, it makes for a better rivalry if there was some sauce on that 'bow to 'brough's beak. While it's not impossible to think of a clash in this rivalry that could one-up breaking another man's face, it's highly unlikely. Because of that, it easily ranks among the biggest moments in the 250 game-plus history of Heels vs. Devils. – Norlander
The Austin Rivers Game
Feb. 8, 2012: Duke 85, North Carolina 84
I've been to lots of Duke-Carolina games. They're always a blast. But the one that stands out the most, the one I remember best, came in February 2012.
It's known as The Austin Rivers Game.
North Carolina was great that season — great enough to earn a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. If Kendall Marshall never fractured his wrist in the second round, it's possible — not likely, but possible — Roy Williams would've retired with four national championships. Like always, UNC and Duke played twice that regular season, and I was at the first meeting, three days after Eli Manning and the Giants beat Tom Brady and the Patriots in Super Bowl XLVI. The Tar Heels entered on a five-game winning streak and were on the verge of extending it to six. They were up 10 points at home with 2:38 remaining — but Duke, incredibly, came back to win the game thanks to Rivers' 3-pointer at the buzzer that completed a wild comeback and left the capacity crowd of 21,750 completely stunned in disbelief.
Here are a few words from the column I eventually filed that night:
Duke beat North Carolina late Wednesday by the slimmest of margins. The final was 85-84. That's the story from the box score. But the box score doesn't tell this story because this story had so many twists and turns that I can't really even make sense of what happened -- and I get paid to make sense of what happens in basketball games. That's my job. I watch basketball and write about basketball. I've been traveling to games for years. I've seen lots of good games and lots of bad games. But I don't think I've ever seen any game quite like the game I just saw here at the Dean Smith Center. And Roy Williams is with me. "I've never seen anything like that," said the North Carolina coach.
Duke outscored North Carolina 13-2 in the final 2:38 to record the improbable victory. On the final possession, UNC's Tyler Zeller got switched onto Rivers, who bounced it six times, got Zeller in a really lonely spot, and then launched a 3-pointer over the out-stretched arm of the 7-footer. Swish. Game over. It immediately became one of the most memorable shots in the history of the well-documented Duke-UNC rivalry. The 10-year anniversary of that shot is this Tuesday. – Parrish
Zion Williamson's shoe holds up in ACC Tournament semis
March 15, 2019: Duke 74, North Carolina 73
In perhaps a sign of things to come, Zion Williamson was injured in the opening minute of Duke's first game against North Carolina in what was his only year on campus. President Barack Obama was courtside — as was filmmaker Spike Lee and Hall of Fame baseball player Ken Griffey Jr. They watched Williamson's shoe explode in a way that resulted in a sprained knee that caused the eventual Naismith National Player of the Year to completely miss the rest of that game against North Carolina. Williamson missed the second meeting too. So unless the Blue Devils and Tar Heels met in the 2019 ACC Tournament, or in the 2019 NCAA Tournament, Williamson would finish his college career having played a grand total of 36 seconds against Duke's biggest rival.
That would've been unfortunate.
Fortunately, though, Duke beat Syracuse in the quarterfinals of the ACC Tournament while North Carolina disposed of Louisville on the same day. So the sport was gifted with a third Duke-UNC game, and Williamson, now healthy, put on a show. He took 19 shots, made 13 of them and finished with 31 points and 11 rebounds in a 74-73 victory that advanced the Blue Devils to the title game of the ACC Tournament, which they won the following day and were then given a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
"It's such a blend of strength and power and quickness that we couldn't stop him from getting the ball inside and going to the basket," North Carolina coach Roy Williams said afterward.
Alas, subsequent injuries have largely robbed us of getting to see Williamson's blend of strength and power and quickness consistently since he became an NBA player. The 6-foot-6 forward only played 24 games as a rookie with the New Orleans Pelicans, just 61 games in his second season, and he's yet to play this season because of an offseason foot injury that required surgery and made it reasonable to wonder if he'll ever live up to the expectations with which he entered the league. Either way, Williamson will always have his 31-point effort against North Carolina, and his place on the list of greatest players to ever play for Krzyzewski at Duke is solidified regardless of where his professional career goes from here. -- Parrish
The Dean Dome double buzzer-beater
Feb. 8, 2020: Duke 98, North Carolina 96 (OT)
It's all too easy to remember this ridiculousness. Here's how my column from this game started:
"There can't be a way to truly measure how unlikely Duke's 98-96 overtime win Saturday at North Carolina is, was or ever will be.
The variables are too ridiculous. The probabilities too unearthly. The coincidences, well maybe there can't be any when it comes to these two.
There have been millions of organized basketball games played in the past 100-plus years. Can't be possible that any of them mimicked the sequence of events that led to Duke 98, North Carolina 96."
The Dean Dome double buzzer-beater.
This game happened less than two years ago but feels like it's at least a half-decade away. Think about it. It was early 2020, before the coronavirus altered the course of world history. The infamous shutdown of American society was still just barely over a month away. Fans were packing buildings in sporting events across the country at this point, and the biggest story in college hoops wasn't remotely tied to the idea there wouldn't be an NCAA Tournament.
In fact, one of the bigger stories at the time of this game was North Carolina's abnormally bad season. UNC hosted Duke as a 10-12 team in the twilight of Roy Williams' coaching career. Duke was an overwhelming favorite. But freshman Cole Anthony put up one of those classic Carolina performances by scoring 24 points and grabbing 11 rebounds. UNC was in control most of the night ... and then it got chaotic before it became epic. Duke's Tre Jones had eight points in the final 50 seconds, including a rare instance of an intentionally missed free throw favoring the team that missed it. Jones' wild carom made its way back into his hands and he got off a prayer just inside the 3-point line to send it to overtime.
Then UNC got a five-point lead in OT and it seemed like the Heels were going to make their season with, at the very least, a home upset win over their hated rival. But no. Jones, at the line again, missed a foul shot (this time not on purpose; the game was tied at 96) and a mad scramble ensued for the loose ball. Jones, again, found the orange in his hands -- only this time his shot was way off, to the left, and so a swooping Wendell Moore Jr. caught the ball in mid-air, as if this was all pre-ordained, and dropped in a layup as time expired to give Duke one of its most memorable wins in program history. -- Norlander
UNC spoils Coach K's home finale
March 5, 2022: North Carolina 94, Duke 81
Many figured the game would be the day's secondary storyline by a wide margin. After all, it was Krzyzewski's final home game to cap a legendary 42-year run with the Blue Devils, and that was the main attraction of the season's second showdown between the two arch rivals. Considering that Duke had demolished UNC 87-67 on the road exactly a month before, there was little reason to expect the Tar Heels could spoil Coach K's farewell party.
But that's exactly what they did in a legendary 94-81 win over Duke marked by a brilliant offensive finish from the Tar Heels. From the rivalry standpoint, it was an epic outcome for several reasons. It was UNC coach Hubert Davis' first victory in the series, it came in Coach K's final home game and it marked revenge for an embarrassing home loss from just weeks before. However, in the context of UNC's season, it may have meant even more.
North Carolina entered the game as one of the "First Four Out" of CBS Sports Bracketology Expert Jerry Palm's projected NCAA Tournament field. The road win over Duke easily marked UNC's best win of the season and put the Tar Heels on the right side of the bubble entering postseason play. The Tar Heels then rode that momentum to the Final Four and another showdown with Duke that will reverberate forever through the rivalry's storied history. – Cobb