North Carolina added another log to the raging fire of sports’ greatest rivalry, beating Duke in Mike Krzyzewski’s final game at Cameron Indoor Stadium last weekend.
The upset spoiled Coach K’s epic going-away party and avenged a 20-point loss to the Blue Devils in Chapel Hill a month earlier.
Tar Heels players and fans celebrated the big win. Many, most notably Armando Bacot, declared it to be one of North Carolina’s biggest wins ever.
“I think it was probably one of the greatest Carolina wins that was not a National Championship game,” Bacot said.
Most observers were not quite as aggressive as Bacot. Wins earning a spot in the Final Four or National Championship game were undoubtedly bigger, as were ACC Tournament championships, of which the Tar Heels have won 18.
With that perspective in mind, social media seemed to settle on the title of “biggest regular season win” ever for UNC’s win over Duke on Coach K’s final home game.
For a team that has been one of the blue bloods in college basketball for decades, there’s plenty of competition for that title. Could the biggest win for such an accomplished program really be spoiling someone else’s big night?
There are plenty of other reasons a game could be big. We’ve identified five. In addition to spoiling things for rivals, there are epic comebacks, wins that set up runs to a championship, celebrations of the program’s success and wins during desperate times for the program.
Here’s a look at each category, and where the Duke win ranks.
Celebrations of the program’s success
There are plenty of options in this category. The Tar Heels celebrated the 2,000th win in program history with a win over Miami on March 2, 2010, becoming just the third program to reach that milestone. Tyler Hansbrough set the school scoring record in a win over Evansville on Dec. 18, 2008. Later that season, UNC celebrated Hansbrough’s Senior Night by beating Duke 79-71 in a game that also clinched the regular season title for the Heels. Twenty-one years earlier, UNC beat Duke to clinch the regular season on Phil Ford’s Senior Night, our No. 10 moment. Coming in at sixth on our list, however, is the Jan. 18, 1986, win over Duke in which the No. 1 Heels beat the No. 3 Blue Devils 95-92 in the first game at the Dean Smith Center.
Spoiling things for rivals
Saturday’s win on Coach K Day is the clear-cut winner in this category, and we have that game at No. 4 on the overall list.
Also in this category is the March 4, 2006, win at Cameron Indoor when the Tar Heels beat the Blue Devils 83-76, spoiling JJ Redick’s Senior Night. Redick missed 15 of his last 16 shots in that game to help move into the No. 7 spot on our list. The “Bloody Montross” game, where UNC beat Duke at the Smith Center in 1992 to spoil a potential undefeated run for the defending national champion Blue Devils, is No. 5 on the list.
A key regular season win often is credited with spurring a run to the NCAA title for the Tar Heels. In 1993, UNC wiped out a 21-point deficit against Florida State with an epic comeback. That game ranks No. 8.
The No. 3 biggest win in UNC regular season history takes us to March 6, 2005. The Tar Heels needed a win to clinch their first ACC regular season title since 1993, but it looked unlikely when Duke led 73-64 with three minutes to go. Carolina mounted a comeback and went to the line with a chance to tie it with 19 seconds left. Raymond Felton made the first and missed the second, but Marvin Williams was there to tip in the rebound and draw a foul, leading to what Roy Williams later said was the loudest arena he’d ever been in his life as the Heels beat Duke 75-73.
UNC has a history of never being out of a game. The list includes the ’93 FSU rally, a 16-point comeback against UVA — capped by a Michael Jordan dunk — in 1983, a 24-point comeback against Wake Forest days after the Bloody Montross game in 1992, Dudley Bradley’s steal to break NC State’s heart in 1979 (No. 9), and Marcus Paige’s buzzer-beater against the Pack in 2014.
Coming in at No. 2 on the list, however, is March 2, 1974. UNC trailed Duke by eight with 17 seconds to play (and no 3-point line to help accelerate a rally). The Heels managed to tie the score, capped by a buzzer-beater by Walter Davis to send the game to overtime. UNC won 96-92.
Success hasn’t always been assured for the Tar Heels, and some of the biggest wins came at the darkest moments. In 2002, with the team struggling through its worst season, the Tar Heels put it together for one night and beat Clemson, helping keep the Tigers winless in Chapel Hill for another 18 years.
The top game on our list came at another time when the program was down. On Jan. 6, 1965, UNC lost at Wake Forest for its fourth straight loss, dropping the Heels to 6-6 on the year. When the team bus returned to campus from Winston-Salem, the players saw an effigy of young coach Dean Smith, which angry students had hung from a campus tree. Three days later, the reeling Tar Heels went to Cameron and beat the No. 8 Blue Devils 65-62. They would win nine of their next 11 games to salvage the season and get the Dean Smith legend started. The game remains the biggest regular season win in UNC history.