Monday, February 8, 2010

Instant Classic

As all-knowing ESPN has decreed it, this is “Rivalry Week” in college basketball. The slate of games, as always, is highlighted by the first matchup this season between Duke and North Carolina. The pregame chatter is likely to focus on the Tar Heels’ maddeningly sloppy play and confounding losses (College of Charleston? Really?).

But in the case of these two teams, a shopworn cliché is apt: Throw the records out the window. In point of fact, some of the best games between the schools have occasioned when one of the teams was mired in a down season. Arguably the greatest game in the rivalry came on Feb. 2, 1995, at Cameron Indoor Stadium.

As noted in an earlier post, Duke was having a season to forget. Mike Krzyzewski had taken a leave of absence to recover from back surgery, leaving the team in the care of assistant Pete Gaudet. The Blue Devils remained a mess and came into the game against UNC winless in seven conference games.

On the other side, Dean Smith had the Tar Heels humming. UNC was 6-1 in the ACC despite a short bench. The Tar Heels started a smallish lineup, with Jerry Stackhouse playing power forward, Rasheed Wallace at center and a three-guard set with Dante Calabria, Jeff McInnis and Donald Williams.

The biggest fallout of Coach K’s absence for Duke came on the defensive end, and it showed in the opening minutes of the game. The overplaying Blue Devils consistently failed to rotate on defense, allowing Williams to go back door on Duke’s Trajan Langdon for the first points. More of the same followed: Stackhouse kept beating Cherokee Parks off the dribble, Williams was left alone for three-pointers and Wallace was having his way on the interior. By the time the Blue Devils took their first timeout, UNC was up, 12-2.

The Tar Heels eventually built their lead to 17 points on one of the greatest dunks in college basketball history. Stackhouse came down on the fast break with Parks and fellow Duke big man Eric Meek hustling to cover the basket. Parks fouled Stackhouse on the takeoff, but UNC’s star sophomore kept rising. Stackhouse swooped to the other side of the basket, got bumped by Meeks in mid-air, then threw down in reverse slam.

Duke started to chip away at the lead as UNC cooled off. The Cameron Crazies, silenced by Stackhouse’s dunk, came back alive as the Blue Devils cut the lead to three in the closing minutes of the first half. Calabria sank a jumper to get UNC ahead, 34-29, and then Duke’s Jeff Capel, in a bit of foreshadowing, barely missed a running 40-footer as the first half drew to a close.

Duke seized momentum early in the second half. Led by Langdon’s hot hand, the Blue Devils sank their first 5 three-pointers after halftime. The Crazies were at fever pitch after Chris Collins grabbed an offensive board, drew a foul and hit a layup for a 12-point lead. Collins sprinted to the Duke bench after making the shot, knocking over diminutive backcourt mate Steve Wojciechowski in his glee. Duke clearly wanted this game to somehow salvage a lost season.

An emphatic dunk by Wallace made it 68-58, and momentarily quieted the crowd. It was then the Tar Heels’ turn to get hot from long distance. Stackhouse, Williams and Calabria each sank key three-pointers as UNC pulled even at 76-76.

Fouls became a factor in the final minutes. Meek fouled out with 11 points and 10 rebounds. Wallace (25 points) committed his fifth personal, allowing Parks to sink two free throws that tied the game, 81-81, in the final minute. UNC had the last possession of regulation, but McInnis missed a 14-footer after trying to shake free of Wojciechowski.

Home court likely made Duke the favorite in overtime, but UNC quickly raced out to a nine-point lead. The Blue Devils didn’t get their first basket in OT until Ricky Price drained a three-pointer with 1:24 remaining.

The Tar Heels used the whole shot clock on their next possession, and seemingly clinched the victory when Pearce Landry corralled an offensive rebound. The television producers at Raycom/Jefferson Pilot Sports definitely thought the game was over, running their credits as Landry sank two free throws. Down eight with 40 seconds left, Price hit another three-pointer. Calabria hit two free throws, then Langdon drained another three for Duke. McInnis made 1 of 2 from the free-throw line, then Capel’s three-point play on a drive brought the Blue Devils within three.

Duke brought out the full-court pressure after Capel’s free throw, and UNC’s only option at getting the ball in was a lob pass to seven-footer Serge Zwikker, who was forced to play crunch-time minutes in Wallace’s stead. Zwikker was quickly fouled and, after missing the first free throw, Smith called time out to set up UNC’s defense.

The four other UNC players stayed in the back court, leaving Zwikker alone at the line to clang his second shot. Capel got the outlet pass with four seconds left. He raced up the court, taking a running 35-footer not unlike the one he missed right before halftime.

This shot found the net, however, and tied the game at 95-95. The Cameron Crazies truly made the arena feel like a loony bin.

But there was still more of the game to play. The players, coaches and referees were drenched in sweat while working OT in that bandbox of a gym. The teams stayed tight until a tough jumper by Williams was followed by a steal and layup by McInnis that gave UNC a five-point lead with a minute left.

Duke worked its way back to within two after a Price jumper, then the Blue Devils forced a turnover to get the final possession. But there wouldn’t be another miraculous shot as Wojciechowski missed a 12-footer and Greg Newton bricked a follow from six feet to give the Tar Heels a 102-100 victory.

There wasn’t much celebration after the game, with the exhausted players loping off the court. The records can fluctuate and coaches can change, but when UNC and Duke gather on the court there is always the strong possibility that history can take place.

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