Over the last week, I’ve had the incredible opportunity to cover the 250th and 251st meetings of Duke and North Carolina on the basketball court.
But while last Saturday in Chapel Hill I covered a collegiate basketball game between Duke University and the University of North Carolina, it wasn’t until Friday night at the ACC Tournament in Charlotte that I truly saw a Duke-UNC game.
Don’t get me wrong, the game at the Smith Center was quite an experience. Emotions were high — not just because of the rivalry but because of Senior Night for three likable players who have spent their careers endearing themselves to the UNC fan base — and the atmosphere was terrific. The cheer for the first UNC basket was the loudest cheer I’d heard to that point in the four UNC home games I covered this year, and only got louder from there, especially as the Tar Heels pulled away in the second half and held on for the 79-70 win.
But Friday night at the Spectrum Center in uptown Charlotte I witnessed a game truly befitting of the Duke-UNC rivalry, and one that none of the Spectrum Center-record 20,116 in attendance will ever forget.
It was (despite some poor shooting numbers) a game played at an exceptionally high level, a game that every possession — especially in the second half — felt immensely and increasingly important. A game with two teams so evenly matched they changed the lead eight times and neither team led by more than five points over the last 15:15 of breathtaking action.
And it was a game that one Zion Lateef Williamson came to play.
The Duke freshman phenom — injured 36 seconds into the first meeting and absent in the second, returning to action just this Thursday — scored 31 points with 11 rebounds, including nine of the last 11 points the Blue Devils scored, and gave Duke the lead for good on a putback of his own miss with 31 seconds left, securing a 74-73 victory.
While the season’s first two meetings were remarkable in their own right — as Jay Bilas says, Duke-UNC always delivers — their drama and tension paled in comparison to the marvel of the tertiary game.
That was partially due to the heavyweight-bout-like game unfolding in front of a boisterous bipartisan crowd. It was partially due to the highest stakes these teams have had in any game all season, seeking a berth in the championship game at the granddaddy of all conference tournaments.
And it was partially due to the sheer presence of Williamson.
In the first two meetings, with Williamson missing, it was clear as could be that the Tar Heels were the better team. Nine- and 16-point wins were the result.
Friday night, with Duke finally near full strength (sans Marques Bolden) and UNC seeming to peak at the right time, as Roy Williams’ teams so often seem to do, the two teams put on a performance that was worthy of a national final, far above the expected level for a conference semifinal.
And who knows, with the skill levels of the two teams and the March pedigrees of the two programs perhaps a fourth meeting in the national final, or at least the late stages of the NCAA Tournament, isn’t too far-fetched.
But unless that happens — and even if one of the teams cuts down the nets in Minneapolis in three weeks — one of the clear and enduring memories of this season for fans of both teams will be Friday’s game, one of the greatest chapters in a Duke-UNC book full of legendary installments.
“That was obviously a great game,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “Vintage ACC, Duke-North Carolina, you know, both teams played so hard and well.”
In many ways it was a perfect storm: the greatest rivalry in college basketball being played on a neutral floor in the state of North Carolina’s largest city, with ACC championship aspirations on the line along with UNC’s wishes of a three-game season sweep of Duke for the first time since 1976, all in what will very likely be the only real appearance in the rivalry for the most explosive and dynamic college basketball player in many years.
“The guy that’s been hurt came back and put on his Superman jersey again and was incredible,” UNC coach Roy Williams said. “It’s such a blend of strength and power and quickness that we couldn’t stop him getting the basketball inside and going to the basket.”
Duke-UNC transcends the realms of a typical college basketball game. Williamson transcends the realms of a typical college basketball player — even of a typical college basketball star.
The result was a game that a couple of columnists that have covered the ACC for many years called the greatest and second-greatest games they’d ever seen live (with one ranking the 2017 UNC-Villanova national final first).
Sure, I saw Duke and North Carolina play last week. But Friday night I was truly introduced to the rivalry, as I saw an absolute classic that will live on in Duke-UNC lore.