RALEIGH, NC Feb. 23, 2015 – Last week’s Duke vs. North Carolina basketball game at Cameron Indoor Stadium was one of the best rivalry games, in any sport, in many years. The Blue Devils got off to a red-hot start with senior captain Quinn Cook knocking down a barrage of three-pointers in the first half. And yet, the Tar Heels hung around, keeping things close at half and using a mid-second half surge to take total control of the game. Carolina center Kennedy Meeks took advantage of a hobbled Jahlil Okafor to put up some strong inside statistics and J.P. Tokoto—once heavily recruited by Duke as a prospect—flashed mind-blowing athleticism to help his team steal momentum. North Carolina secured a double-digit second half lead and appeared well on its way to dispatching its hated rival in the most vaunted arena in college sports.
And then the insanity began. True to form, the rivalry game wasn’t over until the final buzzer, and by that point Duke had led an improbable, if not nearly impossible, comeback, with freshman point guard Tyus Jones out in front. Duke pushed the game into overtime and, despite struggling to knock down would-be game-clinching free throws, came away with a dramatic two-point victory.
It truly was a game for the ages, and one that will no doubt be replayed and brought up for years to come whenever Duke and North Carolina face off, including next month at the Dean E. Smith Center in Chapel Hill. And if you’re one to pay close attention to media reactions, you may have thought the game signified a knockout blow to Carolina, rather than signifying that the rivalry is as close as ever.
ESPN’s Jeff Goodman wrote a fairly shocking article in the game’s aftermath, titled “Will Carolina Ever Be Carolina Again?”, in which he pointed to a number of troubling factors. The bottom line is that UNC has not looked its typical dominant self for a few years now. While lulls are understandable, for once there is no obvious recovery on the horizon. Roy Williams appears to be struggling to land top recruits (though this point may have been exaggerated somewhat); the Heels don’t have a major impact signee for next season; Marcus Paige, last year the heir-apparent to Tar Heel greatness, has regressed; and the as-yet-undetermined extent of the UNC academic scandal could very well turn recruits in another direction.
Perhaps even more damning were some of the messages coming from the Carolina faithful. In the spirit of the rivalry, a Twitter account has emerged for the soul purpose of exposing the “Carolina Meltdown,” tweeting out direct quotes from UNC fans on their own message boards. And reading through the account in the aftermath of the loss to Duke, there certainly seems to be a degree of despair. Many fans point out that Carolina is now a surprising 3-9 in its last 12 contests against its bitter rival, with just as many calling for Roy Williams’ job.
While there is a good bit of language out there forecasting the doom of the UNC program or the lopsided nature of the rivalry of late, it’s important to take a step back and realize just how special things remain on Tobacco Road. For starters, while the sting of allowing the Blue Devils’ comeback is very real for Tar Heel fans, the game in Durham was seconds away from being a monumental UNC win. To put things in perspective, the Betfair odds for college basketball currently have Duke at 9/1 odds to win a National Championship, behind only Kentucky. By comparison, North Carolina is listed at 19/1, among a handful of contenders but well behind Duke. The fact is, the Blue Devils currently have more talent and one of the best resumes in the country, and probably should have won the game handily. Carolina was still able to push a game to the final seconds of overtime in Duke’s own raucous arena, though, and that’s a rivalry game if ever there was one.
What’s more, there was an absolutely sensational statistic that started to make the rounds following the game last week. As noted in CBS Sports’ game recap notes, the win tally in the last 88 games between these two programs is dead even at 44-44. In that span, Duke leads by a sliver in the overall score—just eight points ahead.
The fact is, it’s easy for Carolina fans to feel down right now. A 3-9 record in the last 12 games has to be exhausting, and the program is certainly down a notch. But the same was true of Duke in the mid-’90s when recruiting briefly lulled and Coach K had a season of health difficulties. The same was true at UNC in the immediate aftermath of Dean Smith’s retirement, when the program shuffled through three coaches in less than a decade. If last week’s instant classic proved anything, it’s that this rivalry is about more than hot streaks and lulls that last a few years; it’s about the incredible contests that happen on a given night, and the overall consistency of the programs.
Considering those factors, an overtime classic, and a 44-44 score in the last 88 games, it’s clear that the Tobacco Road rivalry is in excellent shape.