I didn’t need much back-story, though. Born in Durham to UNC parents, I’ve observed every contest since I wore one-piece super hero pajamas, much longer ago than a joke might facilitate. The Montross gash. The Capel shot. The Wojo embrace. The Duhon reverse layup. The Hansbrough 3. The Henderson foul. The blowout.
But this was the first time I witnessed the nation’s best collegiate sports rivalry—a 79-73 Duke victory in this iteration—from the front row at Cameron, directly across from the Tar Heel bench.
Luckily for me, I was able to watch two games.
First came the contest where the Tar Heels (17-6, 7-2 ACC) collected long rebounds from an over-amped Blue Devils squad and leaked out for dunks and layups, beginning on an 8-0 run en route to a 14-point advantage. It was a game where freshman point guard Kendall Marshall controlled the tempo, surged into the paint and found his friends for easy buckets. Duke (22-2, 9-1), on the other hand, shot an abysmal 33 percent from the floor. At one point, the team amassed only eight points in 20 possessions.
Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski said he had a simple, five-minute message at halftime that amounted to “stop playing nuts.”
“They were way too excited,” he said. “’Nuts’ is the word.”
It wasn’t a lack of effort, he said, just a case of wanting to win too badly and straying away from the offensive sets, trying to do too much individually.
And, UNC’s athletes, particularly the long-legged but swift Tyler Zeller and John Henson, “were just so fast in that first half. I think that knocked us back.”
As sophomore shooting guard Seth Curry put it, “We had to really face the facts and get real and know that we had to turn it around in the second half or we were going to get embarrassed out there.”
After intermission, the second game started just the opposite from the first. This time it was Duke opening with an 8-0 run, sucking in offensive boards and turning them into second-chance points. Duke dominated this match-up by 20 points, enough to redeem themselves and eek out a win.
Instead of UNC’s frontcourt, it was Duke’s backcourt that dominated this time. Nolan Smith and Curry each finished with career highs of 34 and 22 points, respectively. Smith was “off the charts,” his coach said. He made 13 buckets, including the one the sealed the victory by leaking out for a runaway jam on an in-bounds play with 14 seconds to go to stretch the advantage to six points.
Curry spurred the Blue Devils during the most telling moments by knocking down four straight jump shots to give the team its first lead of the night with nine minutes left to play.
They never surrendered it.
For UNC Coach Roy Williams, the second half was rather simple. Duke was more aggressive and when UNC couldn’t close out defensive possessions with rebounds, the Blue Devils seized control. Duke was able to collect offensive rebounds on five of the first 10 possessions, twice off of missed free throws.
“We just gave them too many opportunities,” Williams said. “The aggressive team that plays with the most intensity can usually make up for a lot of deficits, and I thought they did that.”
It didn’t help that sophomore guard Dexter Strickland was mired in foul trouble, leaving the Tar Heels without someone take over point guard duties when Marshall needed a blow, and most significantly allowing Smith to face weaker perimeter defenders during key stretches. In this second game, Duke shot 50 percent from the field and UNC went 0-6 from behind the arc.
“They are really good,” Krzyzewski said. “We were just a little bit better than them in the second half, and thank goodness.”
In person, the players seem to jump a little higher. The coaches shout instructions and question calls more loudly. The Cameron Crazies hurl insults more often (I write “hurl” because of the amount of phlem and spit that flew onto my laptop screen). The swirling mass of arms trying to distract free throw shooters gyrates more rapidly. The sportswriters even dress a little nicer.
Heck, I even found Waldo in the bathroom.
Even though I have watched each year as the Duke student body camps out for weeks, seemingly collecting more paint, sparkles, superhero masks and probing insults as the game rolls near and even though I understand why it’s so easy to fall into hyperbole when discussing the rivalry, from Chapel Hill versus Durham to good versus evil in only a few steps, now I’ve truly experienced it.
“You think of vintage Duke-Carolina games and that was one of them,” Krzyzewski said.
It was vintage, but it was also unique. There was only one lead change on the night, but it marked Duke’s largest comeback from a halftime deficit in the 230-game history of the rivalry. You can bet the Tar Heels will seek to rectify that on March 5 when the Blue Devils visit the Dean Dome.