In the lead-up to this past week’s UNC-Duke showdown in Durham, Tar Heel Blog posted two well-written and persuasive articles about the stakes in said game. Jay Exum argued that no matter how good Duke is, the stakes are always high while Alex Thompson suggested this particular game wasn’t as crucial as others in years past for UNC. Now that the game is all said and done, I’m pretty sure everyone can agree that stakes or no stakes, losing to Duke absolutely sucks.
Whether you’re watching the game with a group of fellow Tar Heels or busy with work and only intermittently checking the scores, the feeling is the same when you see the final of 86-78 in Duke’s favor: a mix of frustration, exhaustion, and confusion. If you’re like many of the Tar Heel fans who eagerly watched the entire game for it to only end in heartbreak or someone who was only able to catch the late-night highlights, we all end up in the same place after a Duke loss.
I haven’t been a UNC fan as long as others with my love for the school and the basketball team really only beginning once I was accepted there. Still, in just the five or so years since that moment, the things I remember other than the National Championship run, ACC title win over Virginia, and the amazing Duke win over Jabari Parker in Chapel Hill are all excruciating losses to the Blue Devils.
Maybe other UNC fans aren’t as pessimistic or brooding as I, but those nagging losses tend to stick in my memory, and it already seems like this season’s loss will find a similar place in my consciousness. Why is that exactly? Is it just the rivalry? Or is it sometimes the fact that we are the better team and should certainly win?
Most likely, it’s a combination of those things in more. Recently, one of the most annoying things about losing to Duke is how sadly consistent it has become. The Tar Heels have lost to Duke at least once in the regular season every year since 2008-09. That is a long time, especially when Duke has arguably been a better program both nationally and just in contention with UNC during that time.
Even when Carolina is dominant and obviously one of the best teams in the country—ahem last year—the Heels still can’t beat Duke at home. That loss was miserable, as were the ones where Rasheed Sulaimon or Tyus Jones carved the UNC defense into pieces. UNC had a much better season than Duke last year, winning both the ACC title and tournament and making it to the National Championship. But, somehow, Duke fans can still say they beat the best team we’ve had in years on our home court. How annoying.
And, clearly, the long-standing rivalry plays an enormous part in all this. There are a lot of historical reasons and moments throughout the rivalry that can help describe why one should hate the other, but it’s really just as easy as saying “Carolina and Duke should always hate each other.” It’s pretty much what I knew when I started going to UNC, and it quickly became my reality for that exact reason.
For this season’s Duke loss, so many little things make it terrifying and saddening. First, there’s the thought that after all the jokes and memes at Grayson Allen’s and Coach K’s expense, this team is slowly putting it together. It didn’t matter how bad they were a few weeks ago, it just matters if the play continues to pick up into March.
It also deflates the season since Carolina is about to enter a brutal start to the season. What appeared to be a legitimate chance to win the ACC for the second year in a row is now made much more dicey with this Duke loss. The Heels can’t slip up against weaker competition from here on out and may even need to bag a road upset to claim the title.
And, of course, this particular Duke loss sucks just because it’s another Duke loss. I was working and unable to catch the game in real-time, following along with the Tar Heel Blog slack channel, Twitter, and my friend group. I didn’t have the little annoyances of a frustrating foul, a sickening Allen play, or a dumb move by Nate Britt, nor did I have the dawning realization in the waning minutes that UNC would lose. I just saw the score pop up on my phone—seeing that the Heels gave up 86 points—and immediately became furious. No matter the circumstances in the game or even the fans, losing to Duke sucks.