NSJ 2022 Play of the Year: The Duke‑Carolina tipoff at the Final Four

The bitter rivals finally met in the NCAA Tournament, and it was with the highest stakes imaginable

Duke center Mark Williams and UNC forward Armando Bacot (5) tipoff the Final Four matchup between the rivals on April 2 in New Orleans. (David J. Phillip / AP Photo)

UNC and Duke had played 257 times. They’d played with ACC championships on the line. They’d played when the teams were the top two in the nation. More than mere bragging rights, seasons were on the line whenever these two shades of blue met on the hardwood, and the rest of college basketball always stopped to watch the drama unfold. More often than not, the game lived up to all the substantial hype, and then some.

But never were hearts of collective fan bases in throats more, never were nonsensical prayers about a basketball game offering up deals to God more, never were the eyes of the sports world more on Duke‑Carolina than when Armando Bacot and Mark Williams stood in the center circle in New Orleans and waited for the ball to be tossed up between them.

For the first time in the 102‑year history of the rivalry — and the 83‑year history of the NCAA Tournament — the two rivals met during March Madness. Both teams won their respective regions — Duke beat Arkansas in San Francisco and UNC topped Saint Peter’s in Philadelphia — and moved to New Orleans, along with seemingly everyone in North Carolina, to meet in the Final Four.

The winner would advance to play for the national championship on Monday. The loser would go home and try to live with a defeat in the biggest game in the history of the best rivalry.

As if any more were needed, there were ample storylines on both sides that added drama. The two teams had met a month earlier in Duke’s final home game of the season at Cameron Indoor Stadium. It was a celebration of Hall of Fame coach Mike Krzyzewski, retiring after more than four decades with the school. The stands behind the Duke bench were filled with dozens of former Blue Devils players, back to bid their coach farewell.

UNC upset the Blue Devils, 94‑81, earning their coach, Hubert Davis, the most significant win of his first year on the bench. The result cast a pall on the postgame celebration in Krzyzewski’s honor, and New Orleans was a chance for Coach K and the Blue Devils to get revenge.

It was also a chance for Carolina to pile an even more significant win on top of the previous one. A UNC win over Duke would now end Krzyzewski’s career.

It was literally the only game being played. The potential for joy, and unimaginable despair, was never higher for either fanbase. And under the crushing pressure of “don’t lose,” both big men went to midcourt to get things started.

That moment, as the ball soared above them both down on the Bayou, and it was really happening, is the North State Journal’s 2022 Play of the Year.

Everything that happened afterward defies description. It’s impossible to pick one basket, one stop, one moment from the wild, seesaw battle that ensued and point to that as the top moment. The entire two‑plus hours was a blur of back‑and‑forth, punch‑counterpunch, desperate action.

As we wrote moments afterward in our coverage of the event, “Haymaker after haymaker. Dagger after dagger. Back and forth they went. It seemed like it might never end, and no one watching would have complained. After 83 years, Carolina and Duke finally delivered a game to the NCAA Tournament, and, on April 2, March got a true understanding of what madness really was. It was desperate. It was ugly at times. It was raw desire. Few things have ever been as beautiful. North Carolina and Duke met for the biggest stakes their rivalry game has ever had, and with all the hype and all the attention, they delivered in spades. There were a dozen ties, 18 lead changes and a win probability graph that spiked up and down like the heart monitor readings for anyone with a vested interest in the outcome.”

In the end, Caleb Love hit the biggest shot of his career, a 3‑pointer that clinched the win for the Tar Heels. Krzyzewski stepped down. Davis’ career was sent into the stratosphere, and all of college basketball was left to sort through the aftermath.

The Blue Devils broke up — only two players from the team would be back for the next season. The Tar Heels led at halftime of the title game, only to see Kansas storm back and take the national championship. It’s a trade no one in their fanbase would have turned down beforehand — a win over Duke for the title — and many likely offered in their pregame prayers.

It all happened. But for one, to borrow a phrase, shining moment, it was all happening. No one who saw it will ever forget the feeling.

2021 Play of the Year

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2019 Play of the Year

2018 Play of the Year