What happens when a team puts everything on a rivalry game and falls short?
In 1995, Duke fell on hard times. After two national titles and three Final Fours in four seasons, the Blue Devils had a six-game losing streak in the ACC after coach Mike Krzyzewski took a leave of absence for back issues. Duke staggered into the first North Carolina game at 10-10, 1-7 in the ACC. The Tar Heels were No. 2 in the nation with a 16-1 record.
It should have been a mismatch. Instead, it was an epic. UNC jumped out to a 17-point lead before Duke hit double digits, but the Blue Devils went on a run and took the lead a minute and a half into the second half. From there, it was a dogfight, with the teams ending regulation in a tie. Carolina then took control, leading by nine with a minute and a half to go in overtime before Duke went on a run, scoring six points in the final 10 seconds, capped by a near half-court shot by Jeff Capel to send it to a second overtime. In the end, the favored Tar Heels held on to win by two, 102-100 in one of the greatest college basketball games ever played.
Roles were reversed on Saturday, as the 10-12 Tar Heels limped into the Duke game with the Blue Devils, at No. 7 in the nation, sporting a 19-3 record. The Heels showed up for the rivalry game, however, leading the Blue Devils by as much as 13 with under five minutes to play.
Then the favored Blue Devils broke Tar Heel hearts, first with a Tre Jones play that people will tell their grandchildren about to tie the game in regulation. Trailing by three with seconds left, Jones hit his first free throw, then intentionally missed the second, grabbing the rebound off the floor and tying it up with a desperation jump shot at the buzzer.
In overtime, Duke got another miracle off a Jones miss from the line. This time, Wendell Moore fought for the rebound, then tipped in a missed shot at the buzzer for a 98-96 Duke win.
In both cases, the struggling team went for one last stand against their hated rival but fell two points short.
So what happened next in 1995? It’s not promising for this year’s Tar Heels.
Despite the inspired performance, the Blue Devils weren’t able to recapture the magic from the UNC game. Duke won just twice more in its final nine regular season games, then bowed out in their second ACC Tournament game to finish its season short of the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1983.
North Carolina currently stands at 10-13. To even be considered for an at-large postseason berth, the Tar Heels would need to get to .500. With eight regular season games remaining, that means a 6-2 record with a schedule that includes games at Louisville, Syracuse and Duke as well as home against Virginia and NC State. Anything less, and the Tar Heels would need to go on a run in the ACC Tournament.
In both cases, any progress the team showed in its rivalry game appeared to be wiped out in disappointment over the result.
“We’re going to beat them,” Capel remembered thinking, years later in a News & Observer anniversary story on the game. “We’re going to win this game. And for us, it was like that could turn the rest of the season around. … If we can get this one, that can get our mojo going back. … We were right there. And if we just continue with this effort and build, we can turn this thing around. That’s what I remember. Obviously, it was heartbreak.”
“It was the same old story,” teammate Ricky Price recalled in the same story.
The Tar Heels had a similar reaction after their near miss on Saturday.
“This is probably one of the hardest games to deal with,” Garrison Brooks said, wiping away a tear.
Freshman Armando Bacot admitted he was “scared as hell” when the Heels held a 13-point lead.
“We’re up 13, and I’m thinking, ‘Man, we just can’t,’” he said. “The way our season is going, I’m thinking, ‘Man, we just can’t lose it, we can’t lose it.’”
With little else to play for in a disappointing season, UNC put everything on its rivalry game, just as their rivals did a quarter-century earlier. When that fell short, it was hard to find anything left.
The Tar Heels have a month left to try to recover.
“It’s still just one game,” Roy Williams said. “I told them, we’ve got a chance to play again. We also have a chance to play Duke again. The coach is not going to quit, and they’re not going to either.”