In search of a close game in Chapel Hill: Carolina-State, Round II

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An outtake from a 2008 INDY Week cover shoot featuring Megafauns Brad Cook
There's not quite as much buzz about the second installment of Carolina-State's basketball rivalry as there was prior to the first meeting last month. This could be for several reasons, including the fact that the Duke game is still on another level emotionally for the Tar Heel fan base, as well as State's unexpectedly low league position. Battling for third place is just not as sexy as battling for the league lead.

But it also could be because the memory does not easily recall examples of classic, close-to-the wire Carolina-State games played in Chapel Hill. The game in Raleigh is always a big event for both teams because of the intensity of the crowd, the fact that State has usually been competitive even as an underdog against the Tar Heels at home, and because there have been some exciting, tense games (though none that have come down to the final possessions recently).

The situation in Chapel Hill has been different. Not only has Carolina held court since 2003 against the Pack at home, they've done so in generally dominant fashion. True, Roy Williams's first Tar Heel team in 2004 had to sweat out a tough 68-66 win (an important W for that particular team). But since then the average margin of Carolina's wins over State at home has been 18.5 points, with the closest game being an 89-80 victory by the 2009 Tar Heels, a contest played at a stage of the season when the eventual national titleists were not showing a great deal of zeal on defense.

Going further back, truly close games in Chapel Hill have been a rarity for some time. The 2003 State win in Chapel Hill came in overtime. In 1997, Carolina pulled off a stunning comeback in the final two minutes to defeat State and avoid an 0-3 start to ACC play, a win that helped jump start a run that ended in the Final Four. State pulled off a 99-94 upset win in Chapel Hiil in 1992, a highlight in an otherwise tough year for Les Robinsons's crew.

Let's not forget the 1997 game—Carolina prevailed 59-56 after trailing 56-47 with just two minutes to go—which ranks as one of the classic Carolina comebacks. And certainly State took great satisfaction from notching consecutive wins in Chapel Hill against Matt Doherty's last two teams in 2002 and 2003.

But close, tough games between two NCAA-caliber teams wearing red and light blue, in Chapel Hill? You have to go back to the Valvano years. Valvano's last State team finally got the win in Chapel Hill he craved, an 88-77 victory in 1990. That was State's first win in Chapel Hill since 1976. But several of the games in between were quite close: an 84-81 Tar Heel win in 1989 when State missed a potential game-tying three at the buzzer, and a 1988 overtime classic. Neither the 1985 or 1986 games, played in Carmichael Auditorium, were quite as tense at the end, but in both games the Heels had to play at a very high level to secure wins of 10 and 11 points, respectively. Carolina's wins in 1980 and 1981 in Carmichael over the Pack were by just three points a piece.

The real heyday of the Carolina-State rivalry in Chapel Hill, however, was 1973-1976. In four consecutive games played in Carmichael, the combined margin of victory was just ten points, with State taking three of those games (1973, 1974 and 1976).

Certainly there are plenty of folks around who remember those games vividly. But they are a minority of the fans of each school. For this basketball rivalry to regain its full luster, the younger generations need to see some examples of close, well-played games between two relatively strong teams, not just in Raleigh but in Chapel Hill.

Odds are strong those younger generations will get their chance to see such a game tomorrow night.

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