North Carolina and Duke will meet on Saturday for the second time this season, and Tar Heels coach Roy Williams will likely have to employ every strategy within the rules to have a chance at the upset in Cameron Indoor Stadium.
Had the NCAA not fully instituted the shot clock in 1985, Williams might be devising a game plan similar to the one his mentor, Dean Smith, pieced together against the Blue Devils on Feb. 24, 1979, in Durham, N.C.
The teams had split their previous two games that season (UNC, Duke, Wake Forest and N.C. State used to compete in the mid-season “Big Four” tournament in Greensboro, N.C.) Duke needed a victory to tie UNC for the regular-season ACC championship. The Blue Devils had lost their last game against Clemson, which used a stall-and-spread attack to draw Duke out of its imposing 2-3 zone that was anchored by big man Mike Gminski. That sparked an idea for Smith.
Gminski controlled the opening tap over Pete Budko, and Smith had his Tar Heels come out in a 2-1-2 zone. That left UNC a little vulnerable on the boards, and Duke’s Vince Taylor took advantage — putting back an offensive rebound for a 2-0 lead.
Dave Colescott brought the ball up for the Tar Heels and diagnosed, as expected, that Duke was in its vaunted 2-3. Colescott passed to Dudley Bradley on the left side. Bradley passed the ball back to Colescott. Colescott swung the ball to Rich Yonaker. Yonaker passed the ball back to Colescott. And thus it went on. And on. And on. Smith had the Tar Heels in deep-freeze mode, hoping the Blue Devils would switch defenses to man-to-man so UNC could use its quickness to get to the basket.
The ball kept whipping around the perimeter. Duke coach Bill Foster tried to force some action by morphing into a 1-3-1 trapping zone, but soon sank back into the 2-3. The natives were getting restless in the crowd at Cameron Indoor Stadium, and after 11 minutes of UNC holding the ball, so were the players.
The Tar Heels’ Al Wood mishandled a pass, but the ball bounced off a Duke player out of bounds. After a couple near misses, Duke finally stole the ball and got possession after 12 minutes and 20 seconds of delay. Gminski was fouled after getting an offensive rebound, and the All-American hit 1 of 2 free throws for a 3-0 lead with seven minutes left in the half.
Despite the deficit, Smith stayed stubborn in his plan, and the Tar Heels kept stalling. Finally, Yonaker took a shot that missed everything with four minutes remaining in the half. Gminski shook free for a dunk that made it 5-0, and suddenly the crowd had something to get excited about.
Bradley turned the ball over a few minutes later, giving Duke the chance to eat some clock and let Jim Spanarkel hit a running bank shot with 5 seconds left. Colescott’s 40-foot heave at the buzzer didn’t draw iron.
Duke was leading at halftime by the score of 7-0, and it wasn’t 1953. UNC had taken just two shots, neither of which was close to the rim. Legend has it that the “airball” chant began at Cameron Indoor Stadium that day, but the television feed didn’t pick that up.
UNC had to play it straight in the second half, and the Tar Heels got their first points on Mike O’Koren’s free throws 42 seconds after halftime.
The teams would play even after intermission, with Spanarkel scoring 15 second-half points in Duke’s 47-40 victory. Tempers flared in the final minute, after Gminski laid Wood low with a vicious elbow. That drew an ejection for Gminski and some pushing between players and coaches. Order was restored, if for only a few seconds, before Yonaker delivered his own hard foul that resulted in another technical.
The bitter rivals would play for a fourth time that season at the ACC tournament in Greensboro, with UNC pulling out a 71-63 victory. Stall tactics weren’t needed.