Duke-UNC stands the test of time
New powers have entered the ACC, but Duke-UNC is still a timeless matchup
CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- Phil Ford, the iconic guard of four corners fame for North Carolina, shamefully missed one of the greatest endings to a North Carolina-Duke basketball game while he was still in high school.
As a senior in 1974, Ford watched the Tar Heels -- his future teammates -- trail by eight points to the Blue Devils with 17 seconds left. Of course, this predated the 3-point line and a comeback seemed improbable, so Ford stopped watching.
"I had become upset and I was hurt a little bit because I felt bad for the guys on the team," said Ford, who played from 1974-78. "I went outside and started washing my dad's car. I went back inside to pick up something and saw the game was still on. So I didn't really see the comeback live, but I've seen it many times on video."
Thanks to a couple of Duke turnovers, a missed free throw and a 25-foot bank shot, Carolina tied the game in regulation and won in overtime. Ford has never cut out on a game early again because, as he says, "you never know what will happen."
Multiply that times the nearly 100 years that North Carolina and Duke have waged their Tobacco Road battles and it's understandable how the third and fourth winningest programs in college basketball history formed the quintessential ACC rivalry.
"When something is great, it means it's been there for a long time and it has a certain excellence about it that separates it from most," Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. "And our games against North Carolina over the decades have proven to stand that test of greatness, and time and excellence."
As the Tar Heels and No. 8 Blue Devils prepare to face off Wednesday, it marks the 137th consecutive time that at least one school has been ranked in the Associated Press poll. The last time both schools entered the game unranked was Feb. 27, 1960.
There's an ebb and flow to the series. The Blue Devils have won seven of the last nine since 2010, but that was essentially seen as a response after the Heels had won seven of nine from 2005-09.
The standard is so high for Duke and Carolina that the Heels' streak of three consecutive games in the series being unranked is viewed by some as a sign that the program is slipping.
Not to mention the fact that Syracuse stomped into the ACC with a New York-sized takeover. The Orange not only occupy first place in the league, but have gone unbeaten in the process.
Syracuse, which is the fifth winningest program in college basketball, introduced itself to the league and Duke by winning an instant classic in overtime before the largest on-campus crowd in college basketball history at the Carrier Dome. Both Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim and Krzyzewski proclaimed the schools to be instant rivals.
"What Syracuse brings in is that level of excellence that Duke or Carolina can bring in over the years," Krzyzewski said. "They bring a great package of accomplishment, achievement. And therefore when it's matched up against another program like ours or North Carolina's, it's the way college sports should be."
The Orange and Blue Devils boast the two winningest coaches in Division I college basketball history and when they meet on Feb. 22 for the rematch, both teams could be ranked in the top 10.
After that first meeting, some feel that Syracuse could muscle its way past North Carolina and forge the defining rivalry in the newly expanded ACC. The attention the game will get could make a lesser rival jealous.
There's no need for that, according to Stanford coach Johnny Dawkins, who played at Duke from 1983-86 and served as an assistant coach from 1998-2008. Dawkins said the ACC will definitely be stronger with its new additions including Syracuse. But, Dawkins says, it would be hard to supplant a Duke-Carolina rivalry that started in 1920.
"Rivalries aren't built off of instant classics, they're built over years of enduring tough times, good times, competing against one another, the proximity of the schools," Dawkins said. "I think all of that plays into it. That's been going on a century almost. I don't think that's going anywhere. It's one of the best rivalries in sports to be quite frank."
The schools are located within eight miles of each other down US 15-501, which lends itself to unintentional interactions. UNC guard Marcus Paige remembered seeing several Duke players on Franklin Street, which is the definitive strip in Chapel Hill, during the summer. Although, Paige admitted he wouldn't go out of his way to speak to them.
"We dapped each other up; there was no hate," McDonald said. "It was an understanding that on the floor we don't like each other. When we see them out in public, there's no bad blood. We don't hate them and I don't think they hate us. But when it comes on this floor, we despise them."
Often, other rivalries take precedence during a given season. During the 1970's, NC State was a bigger rivalry for the Heels than Duke. The Blue Devils were in a down swing, which led to Krzyzewski's arrival. The Tar Heels' battles with Virginia during the Ralph Sampson era elevated it to the league's top rivalry for a time.
Duke and Maryland in the late '90s and early 2000s also carried the conference while Carolina was transitioning away from legendary coach Dean Smith.
North Carolina coach Roy Williams said one or both Carolina and Duke would have to be "bad for a generation" for it to no longer be considered the definitive rivalry.
"It would have to go for a long, long time to erase what coach Smith and Mike [Krzyzewski] that rivalry that they had for such a long time," Williams said. "I think it'd have to go dead for a long period of time before people would forget that."
With the addition of Louisville next season, high-stakes games between highly ranked teams only figure to come more often. Thing is, the ACC has always come back to Duke and North Carolina. There's a reason why the Tar Heels (29) and Blue Devils (19) have accounted for more ACC regular-season titles than the rest of the schools in the league combined.
"The history and just the great players, the tremendous games here against each other, the success both programs have had for a long period of time, I think us two programs are just a cut above everybody," Duke guard Quinn Cook said. "There's no rivalry in sports that people take so seriously. On Wednesday you guys will be able to feel it in the air. It's a Duke-Carolina matchup. I just think it's a cut above in front of all rivalries in the world."
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