The North Carolina Tar Heels and Duke Blue Devils will meet for the 249th time Wednesday at Cameron Indoor Stadium in Durham. No. 8 Carolina is looking for their second consecutive win in the series after besting their archrival in last season’s regular season finale in Chapel Hill.
Carolina-Duke is the greatest rivalry in North American sports. No other rivalry, collegiate or professional, can come close to the Battle of Tobacco Road. The structures of the schools (Carolina is the oldest state-run university in the country while Duke is a private institution) contribute to the rivalry but it’s all about what they’ve done on the court.
The two schools, separated by 10 miles, are among college basketball’s elite programs. North Carolina is No. 3 on the list of college basketball’s all-time winningest programs, while Duke is fourth.
Since the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) was founded in 1953, North Carolina and Duke have combined to win 50 of 65 regular season championships and 38 conference tournament titles. In addition, these rivals have a collective 36 Final Four appearances (including Carolina’s record 20 times in the national semifinals) with 11 national championships.
North Carolina and Duke have been to the Final Four collectively more times than any other conference in Division I.
Wednesday’s game will mark the 83rd time in the series both teams are ranked since the AP Poll was introduced in 1948. It will also be the 46th meeting in which both squads are in the Top 10 and the 25th game featuring a No. 1 ranked team (including Duke’s 18th time as the nation’s top team counting Wednesday’s game).
Carolina leads the all-time series 137-111, outscoring Duke by a mere 22 points (13,581 to 13,559).
Carolina/Duke is the greatest rivalry in North American sports. Picking the 10 most memorable moments is difficult for a rivalry that goes back nearly a century…but we will do our best.
10. Feb. 4, 1961—#4 Duke 81, #5 North Carolina 77
This is the game many credit as the starting point of the rivalry as we know it today.
The school’s freshman teams played the first game of a doubleheader at Duke Indoor Stadium (The arena was renamed after men’s basketball/football head coach and athletic director Eddie Cameron in 1972). It was a chippy, physical game that saw the Tar Heels finishing with just three players (five players fouled out and three were ejected for fighting) on the floor.
The ending of the varsity game proved to be even more combustible.
Duke held an 80-75 lead with 15 seconds remaining. Duke guard Art Heyman fouled the Tar Heels’ Larry Brown in the act of shooting. This led to an all-out brawl between the two players. Fans came down from the stands and began throwing punches as well. Heyman later claimed he was kicked by a pair of alligator shoes that presumably belonged to Carolina head coach Frank McGuire.
The brawl lasted for about 10 minutes, making Heyman’s 36 points an afterthought. Durham Morning Herald sports editor Jack Horner immortalized the game with “Duke won the game, but lost the fight.”
Heyman, Brown (the future Hall of Fame coach), and Tar Heels reserve Donnie Walsh (the future NBA executive) were suspended for the remainder of the season though Heyman was allowed to play in the Blue Devils’ remaining non-conference schedule and the ACC Tournament.
Both Heyman and Brown hailed from New York City and played their high school ball on Long Island. The two reportedly planned to be roommates had Heyman decided to attend North Carolina.
9. Mar. 2, 1974–#4 North Carolina 96, Duke 92 (OT)
The unranked Blue Devils looked as if they were going to get some payback on Carolina’s Senior Day for a two-point loss at Cameron 42 days earlier. They held an 86-78 lead with 17 seconds remaining in regulation when Dean Smith called a timeout.
Smith told his team, “We can win this game. Bobby (Jones) is going to make these free throws, we’re going to put a trap on them and get a steal and score quickly.”
Jones hit both shots from the charity stripe. Two Duke turnovers on inbound passes led to buckets by Jones and John Kuester. Carolina then fouled Pete Kramer, who missed the front end of a 1-and-1. The Tar Heels’ Walter Davis (the first African-American player in the ACC) hit a running 30-foot buzzer beater to send the game into overtime and the Carmichael Auditorium crowd into a frenzy.
This game is known NCAA lore as Eight Points in 17 Seconds. What made this comeback stand out was that the 3-point line hadn’t yet been adopted by the NCAA. Smith’s players credit him with a calm, methodical approach focusing on each individual step as opposed to the totality of the situation.
8. Feb. 28, 1981—Duke 66, #11 North Carolina 65 (OT)
It was Senior Night at the end of Mike Krzyzewski’s first season in Durham. Not much was expected of Coach K’s first Duke squad. Mike Gminski, Duke’s best player from the previous season, was in the NBA. Krzyzewski had to make due with a team led by Gene Banks, Kenny Dennard, and Jim Suddath.
The Tar Heels defeated Duke 80-65 in the season’s first meeting at Carmichael. Carolina was just too talented for the upstart Blue Devils…or it so seemed.
Spurred on by the absence of Tar Heels forward James Worthy, Duke played as if they had nothing to lose and kept the game close. Tar Heels center Sam Perkins made a pair of free throws for a 58-56 lead with two seconds remaining. Duke inbounded the ball to midcourt before calling a timeout, taking a second off the clock.
After the timeout, Banks came off a screen at the top of the key, catching the inbound pass from Dennard and launched a high arcing shot over the outstretched arms of Perkins. Perkins managed to get a sliver of the ball but the shot remained on point. The Cameron Crazies lived up to their name when the shot fell through, sending the game into overtime.
In the final seconds of overtime with Duke trailing by a point, Banks tipped in the go-ahead shot. He finished his home game with a game-high 25 points. Not a bad performance for someone who began the night in a tuxedo handing out roses to the Cameron Crazies.
Although Coach K didn’t recruit any of the players on his first Duke team, they did give him the first of his 46 victories against the Tar Heels. Duke lost in the second round of the NIT that season while the Tar Heels fell to Indiana (and Krzyzewski’s mentor Gen. Robert Montgomery Knight) in the national championship game. The regular season finale, however, was a sign of things to come.
7. Jan. 22, 1983–#3 North Carolina 103, Duke 82
This was the first trip to Carolina for Coach K’s first major recruiting class (Mark Alarie, Jay Bilas, Johnny Dawkins, David Henderson). They faced the defending national champion Heels who were on a 10-game winning streak entering the game.
It is often forgotten (or overlooked) that His Airness played in this rivalry. There is a running joke that the only person who ever held Michael Jordan under 20 points was Dean Smith. This game proved that statement to be a falsehood.
Jordan did whatever he wanted and the Blue Devils were powerless to stop him. He finished with 32 points, seven rebounds, and five assists. Coach K, who recruited Jordan, had nothing but praise after the game.
“He said, ‘I want it, give it to me, I’m going to work,” Krzyzewski said. “We wanted to play defense on him. We diagrammed and said this is what he’s going to do. He still did it. I admire that. Even when he missed shots, he was working so hard to get them. He never gave us a chance to get back into it.”
6. Mar. 12, 1989–#7 North Carolina 77, #9 Duke 75
By the 1989 ACC Tournament Championship at the Omni in Atlanta, Duke, under Coach K, had established itself as being of the same caliber as perennial blue blood North Carolina.
Heels center Scott Williams, a lanky player who was proficient at drawing contact, fell down repeatedly in the paint. After the third flop, Krzyzewski thought Williams was being too physical and told him so.
“Hey, 42, that was a dirty foul,” Krzyzewski said.
Smith pulled himself out of his seat, clapped his hands, and admonished Krzyzewski.
“Don’t talk to my players!” Smith said.
Then, Krzyzewski did the unthinkable. He menacingly stared down Smith and said four simple words.
“Hey Dean! F*** you!” Krzyzewski said.
This was seismic because Coach K cursed out a man who didn’t curse.
The game featured 49 fouls, 59 free throws attempted, four players fouling out, and five others who finished the game with four fouls. It was also the final ACC game for two players whose paths were linked: Carolina’s J.R. Reid and Duke’s Danny Ferry.
Both Reid and Ferry were the No. 1 recruits in the country when they began their college careers. Reid was considered the better physical specimen and had more upside while Ferry’s game was more versatile and he had better work ethic.
A mini-scandal erupted when the Cameron Crazies held a sign with the words “J.R. Can’t Reid”. This prompted Smith to comment publicly that Reid (and Williams) had higher SAT scores than Ferry and freshman sensation Christian Laettner. Krzyzewski was “really pissed off that he (Smith) would talk about my players publicly. Smith countered with the fact that he “didn’t give out specific scores. But I know what they are because I recruited all for.”
Reid and Ferry collided throughout the game. After going up for a rebound, Reid knocked Ferry to the ground, stood over him, and snarled, “Take that, Mr. Naismith.” Ferry was the Naismith Award winner in 1988-89.
Smith and Krzyzewski shook hands after the game but it was easy to see their hearts weren’t really in it.
5. Mar. 9, 2003—North Carolina 82, #10 Duke 79
This game was not memorable because of the outcome, the first Carolina victory over Duke in two years. It was memorable because two former players turned coaches in the rivalry came perilously close to throwing punches themselves.
Carolina head coach Matt Doherty, who played on the 1982 national championship team, thought Jones committed a flagrant foul and complained to referee Mike Wood. Wood told Doherty (who was standing over Felton in front of the Duke bench), “That’s not what happened, Coach.”
Duke assistant Chris Collins, who had been a Tar Heels nemesis during his playing days, stepped onto the court in order to get Wood’s attention. This led to Doherty and Collins exchanging obscenities. Doherty, who is six inches taller than Collins, stuck out his chest and bumped him.
Players and coaches from both sides began pushing and shoving each other, leading Wood to tell both Doherty and Krzyzewski, “This is wrong. This is embarrassing to a great league, two great universities, and two great basketball programs. It has to end.”
Both Doherty and Collins were reprimanded by the ACC for their parts in the scuffle. This proved to be the final nail in Doherty’s coffin. He resigned as Carolina head coach 23 days later.
4. Feb. 24, 1979–#6 Duke 47, #4 North Carolina 40
Dean Smith considered beating an opponent on Senior Day/Night as one of the tougher tasks in college basketball. He pulled out all the stops on this particular Senior Day at Cameron Indoor Stadium to no avail.
This game featured Smith’s Four Corners offense. In this set, four players stand in the corners of the offensive half-court while the fifth player (usually the point guard) dribbles the ball in the middle. The team running the Four Corners offense would try to score but only on safe shots. This offense was particularly effective in the days before the shot clock was instituted, although players were not allowed to hold the ball for more than five seconds while being guarded.
Smith used the Four Corners in the first half in an attempt to neutralize Duke’s zone defense and the imposing Mike Gminski, the ACC Player of the Year. Unfortunately for Carolina, it didn’t work as Duke took a 7-0 lead into halftime.
The teams played normally in the second half but Gminski proved to be too much for the Tar Heels. The game had significance as Duke’s win forced a coin toss to determine the No. 1 seed in the ACC Tournament. Carolina won the coin toss.
Smith defended his game plan as “so sound” after the game. Foster didn’t mince words about Smith’s strategy on his radio show the following day.
“If this is what’s happened to the game, maybe it’s time for me to do something else,” Foster said.
After a commercial break, Foster used what would become his most famous quote about the Carolina coach.
“I thought Naismith invented basketball, not Dean Smith,” he said.
3. Feb. 5, 1992–#9 North Carolina 75, #1 Duke 73
The defending national champion Blue Devils hadn’t lost a game since the Tar Heels defeated them in the ACC Tournament final the previous season, a span of 23 games.
Duke came into the game at the Smith Center shooting 54 percent from the field and 44 percent from the 3-point line. Carolina, on the other hand, lost three starters from a team that made it to the Final Four before falling to Roy Williams’ Kansas squad. They were not happy they were denied a chance to play their most hated rival for a national championship and looked to make a statement.
The intensity of this game was ratcheted up a few notches, even for this rivalry. The faces of Duke’s Bobby Hurley and Carolina’s Eric Montross were bloody from too many collisions by the midway point of the first half.
Carolina out-shot and out-rebounded Duke for most of the game, going up by as many as 18 points. The Blue Devils rallied back to cut the lead to two but Carolina’s superior free throw shooting proved to be the difference maker.
The game’s most indelible image is that of Montross standing at the free throw line with blood streaming down his face. In 2019, he would be taken out of the game to get stitches. Twenty-eight years ago, however, Montross’ bloody grill symbolized how gritty and tough this rivalry really is.
2. Mar. 4, 2007–#8 North Carolina 86, #14 Duke 72
At first glance, this game didn’t appear as if it would go down as one of the rivalry’s most memorable.
Carolina was in firm control with 14.5 seconds remaining. The Heels’ Tyler Hansbrough missed a free throw but grabbed the rebound. Duke’s Gerald Henderson proceeded to hit Hansbrough with a hard forearm, knocking him to the ground.
Hansbrough immediately jumped off the ground with more blood streaming down his face than Eric Montross had 15 years earlier. The player known as Psycho T at first looked as if he wanted to attack Henderson. Then, it appeared he was going to rush the Duke bench. Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed.
Hansbrough suffered a broken nose and Henderson was ejected. Hansbrough later admitted it “would have looked really bad” if he’d gone after Henderson. Henderson, for his part, said it wasn’t his intention to hit Hansbrough in the face.
“If you look at the replay, my eyes are closed as it’s happening and I just wildly took a swipe down,” Henderson said years later.
The two players let bygones be bygones. In 2017, they began collaboration on the Tobacco Road Podcast. They both say fans continue to approach them about that incident nearly 12 years later.
1. Feb. 18, 2015–#4 Duke 92, #15 North Carolina 90 (OT)
This was the first Carolina/Duke game played at Cameron Indoor Stadium following the death of Dean Smith.
During a pregame moment of silence, Mike Krzyzewski and Roy Williams hugged while players from both teams placed their arms around each other’s shoulders at midcourt. Some fans wore T-shirts in Duke’s darker shade of blue with the word “Dean” across the front. Many stood in quiet reflection while some silently wept.
As for the game itself, the two teams traded blows as they had on many occasions. Duke saw a 13-point lead evaporate while Carolina went up by as many as 10.
In the end, Duke prevailed. Their freshmen trio of Tyus Jones, Jahlil Okafor, and Justise Winslow combined for 50 points for Duke’s ninth win in 12 meetings. They would go on to play pivotal roles in Duke’s fifth national championship run.
However, the final score was not at the forefront of Krzyzewski’s mind. After Smith’s retirement before the 1998-99 season, the two fierce competitors became really good friends. Krzyzewski, who was 14-24 against the Heels with Smith as head coach, often said he came to understand his rival better because of his own success at Duke.
The first Carolina/Duke game after Smith’s death was a classic, a fact not lost on Krzyzewski.
“He (Smith) might not have liked the result of the game,” Krzyzewski said. “But I’m sure he liked the way both teams played.”