It is not hard to make the case that UNC has been the better overall program than Duke since Roy Williams arrived as head coach in 2003. During this span, Carolina leads in national championships (three to two), Final Fours (six to three), ACC regular season titles (eight to three), and more. Some in Durham may quibble that Duke has a dozen more overall wins (not even one per year) and Carolina has suffered more down seasons; but at the very worst, and if for whatever reason you wish to be generous to the Dukies, it is a slight advantage to Carolina.
Where Duke has held a decided edge, particularly between 2010 and 2015, is in head-to-head matchups. Williams began his career 0-3 against the Devils, then won seven out of nine, and now has dropped 14 of the last 21 showdowns for a total record of 14-19 (1-2 in ACC tournament) against the Heels’ most hated rival. Duke has swept Carolina in four of the 15 seasons, with UNC returning the favor only twice. Naturally, then, Duke has inflicted a lot of pain and suffering on Heels fans over the last 15 years. Among the 19 defeats, Carolina blew eight halftime leads and six double-digit leads.
Carolina has also enjoyed its share of triumph in the Tobacco Road rivalry with several memorable, gutsy, and downright miraculous wins. UNC’s record against Duke under Williams, which is not terrible, could be more lopsided had they not pulled out a few notable games and close calls of their own. Most of the worst losses happen to be in February and the best wins in March, which suggests that Carolina has been opportunistic in winning the especially big ones in the rivalry. Indeed, UNC defeated Duke in the season finale seven times between 2005 and 2012 and six times to clinch the ACC championship, the last four of the victories snatching the title directly away from the Devils themselves.
With that said, let’s take a look at the most heartbreaking losses and heartwarming wins versus Duke in the Williams era, in my opinion:
1. Feb. 8, 2012: No. 5 UNC vs. No. 10 Duke (85-84)
I believe this is a clear number one. Austin Rivers and Duke stunned Carolina to win a game it never led in the second half until after the final horn. UNC led by 13 points at one time and by 10 with just two and a half minutes remaining. Yet Duke ambushed Carolina on one of its patented sprit-killing rallies from nowhere and, with a two-point deficit and the clock winding down, Rivers measured up UNC center Tyler Zeller for a buzzer-beating three-point spear to the hearts of Carolina faithful.
The Heels shot 59 percent from the field after halftime and still lost, partly due to an 8-for-15 mark from the free throw line. Two of those misses in the final minutes came from the normally-reliable Zeller, who also somehow tipped a bad Duke miss backwards for an own-basket with 15 seconds to play to trim the lead to one. The big man, albeit at a natural disadvantage, also could have played closer to Rivers on the final shot to protect the lead, later admitting he knew Rivers would attempt a three. It was that kind of meltdown for the whole team.
This travesty snapped a school-record 31-game home winning streak and prevented the Heels from gaining separation at the top of the ACC standings – though they would ultimately come through by crushing the Devils in Cameron by 18 points a month later.
2. Feb. 5, 2004: No. 17 UNC vs. No. 1 Duke (83-81 OT)
This was Williams’ first taste of the clash of blues from the head coach’s seat, and Carolina was determined to prove it was moving on from the Matt Doherty era with a return to rivalry relevancy. Duke was the top-ranked team in the country and made an eventual run to the Final Four, but UNC was gaining respect of its own, firmly in the national rankings and buzzing with excitement upon Williams’ return to Chapel Hill. Carolina surrendered a seven-point lead with under six minutes to play, but Jawad Williams nailed a three-pointer from the top of the key with 18 seconds left to force overtime.
Then, in the extra session, Rashad McCants (27 points) hit a game-tying three of his own on a similar-looking shot with 13.5 ticks to go. All the heroics were nullified, however, when Duke’s Chris Duhon immediately took the ball coast-to-coast past four UNC defenders for an up-and-under layup with 6.5 seconds on the clock. Raymond Felton then found Melvin Scott on the wing for a potential game-winning long ball, but it fell well short and Duke prevailed for its 13th win in 15 games in the series.
3. Feb. 18, 2015: No. 15 UNC @ No. 4 Duke: (92-90 OT)
Another tough overtime loss to the Dukies, this time in Cameron. The Devils would ultimately win the national championship, but the Heels sure had to feel like they had Duke on the ropes in this one. UNC turned a 13-point first-half deficit into a late 10-point advantage, but then the wheels slowly came off. The Heels’ upset bid still felt secure when Brice Johnson (18 points) made two free throws to stretch the lead to 81-76 with 46 seconds remaining.
However, all it took to turn the tide was a quick three-point play by Duke’s Tyus Jones (he wasn’t really fouled, but, you know) and ensuing free-throw miss by Johnson on the front end of a one-and-one. Jones wasted no time driving for another layup to tie the score with 29 ticks left on his eighth and ninth-straight points, and as typically happens when UNC has last possession in a tie game, the contest then went to overtime after a long missed jumper by Marcus Paige (five points) at the end of a disastrous play.
Kennedy Meeks (18 points) scored the first bucket of overtime and the Heels led by three at the three minute mark, but Duke wrestled back the edge despite missing a couple of free throws. The Devils did the smart thing by fouling when up three points in the final seconds, and Nate Britt made the first free throw before beautifully missing the second. However, Paige could only get his hands on the ball for an instant before it was fumbled (fouled?) out of bounds as time expired. The Cameron Crazies went crazy and a few weeks later Duke would complete the season sweep as 2015 joined 2004, 2010, and 2013.
4. Feb. 9, 2005: No. 2 UNC @ No. 7 Duke (71-70)
This was another battle in Cameron in which the Heels’ late-game execution eluded them. I’ll always remember this as the game UNC didn’t get a shot off despite trailing by one point and having 18 seconds to do so. Raymond Felton had an opening from the top of the key midway through the possession, but even though the Heels were behind, he turned it down for a better look that never came. Instead, Felton passed to David Noel, who dribbled the ball out of bounds as the buzzer sounded. UNC scrapped hard to stay in a battle that did not play to its style, as the first fast-break points for either team came on a McCants layup to cut the deficit to one in the final minute. J.J. Redick then airballed a long 3 as the shot clock wound down, giving the Heels an opportunity to steal Williams’ first win over the Devils. Though that would have required a shot attempt, so he fell to 0-3.
5. Feb. 17, 2016: No. 5 UNC vs. No. 20 Duke (74-73)
Carolina, truthfully, had very little excuse to lose this game. They were safely the better team at the time and throughout the season, plus shorthanded Duke used only five players the entire second half and allowed 25 second-chance points. The Heels were doomed by a poor shooting night from starting guards Paige and Berry, who combined to go 4-of-22 from the field, but it made you question why they were taking so many (unsuccessful) shots against a small team with no bench.
The Heels never held a huge lead, maintaining an arm’s length throughout the second period, but an urgency to finish off the winded Dukies just didn’t follow as UNC suffered its second collapse against Duke in as many years. After Justin Jackson’s layup stretched UNC’s advantage to 68-60 with under seven minutes to play, Duke freshman Brandon Ingram – who spurned the Heels to play for the Devils – made three consecutive buckets to put Carolina in an uncomfortable position only a couple minutes later. The teams battled back and forth down the stretch, with Luke Kennard’s three-pointer giving the Devils their first lead since the first half with 2:39 to play, and Meeks’ layup handing the Heels their last lead 30 seconds later. Two Grayson Allen free throws put Duke ahead with 1:09 left and were the last points of the game.
A hectic final minute of continuous action saw two potential go-ahead shots miss the mark for UNC, neither of which was taken by the near-unstoppable Brice Johnson (29 points, 19 rebounds). You may respect Williams’ general philosophy of avoiding timeouts at the end of close games, but this is probably one of the most glaring examples his critics can point to as one when a timeout was in order. Williams himself admitted as much, stopping short of complete regret: “I told [the players] I was sorry, that I should’ve gotten us a better shot at the end … We didn’t get as good of a shot as I thought we would, but [attacking before the defense gets set] is something I’ve always believed in. If we had to do it all over again tomorrow night, I’ll probably do the same thing cause I think that’s the best way to play.”
-Mar. 10, 2017: No. 6 UNC vs. No. 14 Duke (ACC Semifinals) (93-83): In the first postseason matchup between the schools since 2011, Joel Berry’s fourth foul proved to be the key play as Duke stormed back from a 16-point second-half deficit to win comfortably in Barclays Center. However, UNC went the distance in that other postseason tournament afterwards.
-Feb. 13, 2013: unranked UNC @ No. 2 Duke (73-68): The Heels led for the first 26 minutes of the contest but ultimately missed out on the chance to spring a huge upset over Duke, shooting just 13-of-23 from the charity stripe as the Devils made a late run in Cameron to survive.
-Mar. 6, 2010: unranked UNC @ No. 4 Duke (82-50): If you want to completely dismiss this year from UNC history, that’s cool; but no matter how poor of a team UNC fields, it never expects to lose by 32 points to its arch rival on said archrival’s march to a national championship.
1. Mar. 6, 2005: No. 2 UNC vs. No. 6 Duke (75-73)
This is as gritty as a win gets. In jeopardy of seeing their new coach fall to 0-4 against Duke, and with pressure-packed expectations in the national landscape, the Heels delivered a comeback for the ages. Carolina trailed by nine points with three minutes remaining and was playing without its ill star McCants for the fourth-straight outing. But UNC fought back with stingy defense and smart execution to claim its first outright ACC regular season championship since 1993.
Down by two points with 20 seconds to play, Felton drove to the basket and was fouled. He made the first foul shot to cut the deficit to one, then missed the second, but freshman sixth man Marvin Williams was there for a putback and foul to ignite the Dean Dome. Williams made his freebie for a two-point lead, and the Carolina defense suffocated the Devils on the next possession to give them two contested looks. Redick’s potential three-point winner barely rimmed out, but rim out it did, and UNC was officially back on the national scene and the rivalry was restored. One month later, Williams won his first national championship at his alma mater.
2. Mar. 4, 2006: No. 13 UNC @ No. 1 Duke (83-76)
Whereas in 2005 the Heels were playing with heavy expectations on their shoulders, in 2006 they were swinging free. This was the first of four consecutive UNC wins in Cameron, coinciding with the careers of Tyler Hansbrough, Danny Green, Marcus Ginyard, Bobby Frasor, and Mike Copeland. And what better way to send off Redick and fellow Dukie Shelden Williams on their Senior Night than with a tough-minded upset of the top-ranked team in the land.
The Devils made their usual late push, cutting what had been an 11-point lead to three with 90 seconds left, but the “Baby Heels” held them off with veteran poise. Frasor and Hansbrough each hit two clutch free throws in the final 25 seconds to protect the lead. Earlier, with just over three minutes to play, Hansbrough splashed a 30-foot three-pointer at the end of the shot clock to give the Heels a needed cushion and himself one of the defining moments of his career.
An upset loss in the Big Dance to George Mason – who went on to make the Final Four – was a difficult ending to the season. However, this was one of the most positive years for UNC under Williams that did not end in a title, in large part due to this victory.
3. Mar. 5, 2011: No. 13 UNC vs. No. 4 Duke (81-67)
This is another candidate for that consolation award – another rendition of the Baby Heels that made fans more proud than satiated. On the heels of the 2009-10 disaster, player defections, and injuries left the team with only eight scholarship players by season’s end. UNC lost four games to non-conference opponents by the middle of December. But Williams and the Heels stuck with it, losing only four more games over the next three-plus months – two to Duke. But in between, UNC made sure to snatch the Tobacco Road showdown that mattered most – yes, Dukies, regular season ACC titles are more important than ACC tournament titles in this day and age.
The Heels needed surprisingly little drama to polish off the defending national champs in this winner-take-all primetime matchup, earning a 12-point lead at halftime and allowing just one Duke field goal in the final 11 minutes in front of a delighted Dean Dome crowd. The 14-point victory completed a sparkling 14-2 ACC record and regular season championship just two years removed from a national title and one year removed from Williams’ worst season in 30 years as a head coach. The Heels also made up for blowing a 14-point halftime lead in the first game of the season at Duke. The Devils would handily get payback the following weekend in the ACC Championship Game in Greensboro, but who really cared? This win was awesome. UNC is the only team in ACC history to win the conference a year after finishing below .500 in league play.
4. Feb. 11, 2009: No. 3 UNC @ No. 6 Duke (101-87)
Often winning a rivalry game isn’t about playing your very best, but fighting your best and exchanging blows with the opponent to hopefully come out on top. Though this isn’t meant to be taken literally, this game did happen to swing on an errant elbow from Duke’s Kyle Singler to Hansbrough’s chin on the first possession of the second half after the Devils had used a 22-5 run to take the lead. Singler was assessed a technical foul and UNC turned a 52-44 halftime deficit into an 88-71 advantage at the last media timeout.
The margin was too big for even Duke to overcome, and the Devils allowed 100 points for the first time in over nine years. Carolina continued its roll with an eighth-straight ACC win to dig out of a surprising 0-2 start and improve to 22-2 overall. While the Heels would stumble at Maryland ten days later and lose again in the ACC tournament semifinals to Florida State, this test in Durham at the midway point was certainly a big spark along the way to UNC’s second national title under Williams. Carolina was able to hold serve at home the following month by outlasting Duke 79-71 on Hansbrough & Co.’s Senior Night to clinch its fourth ACC title in five years and most recent sweep of the Devils. However, it wouldn’t have been possible had the Heels not turned the tables eight miles down the road first.
5. Mar. 9, 2018: No. 12 UNC vs. No. 5 Duke (74-69) (ACC Semifinals)
Although I argue that the ACC tournament is relatively meaningless, if the bracket dictates that a game is to be played between UNC and Duke, then UNC better win it. The Heels did that last season in postseason play for the first time under Williams and the first time overall since 1998 after losing six-straight meetings. They also won the season series over Duke in doing so, the first time since a 2009 sweep, and avenged two painful losses in the series – the Heels had relinquished a big lead to the Devils in Brooklyn the year before, and again fell from 13 ahead in the second half just six days before in Durham.
UNC nearly coughed this one up after a great start as well, letting a 16-point lead with five and a half minutes to play whittle down to three in the final minute. Carolina turned the ball over on consecutive possessions to gift Duke chances to tie the game, but Grayson Allen bailed out the Heels with an ill-advised shot and Theo Pinson iced the win with two clutch free throws on the other end. The Heels lost the very next night in the ACC finals to Virginia, but this was an important victory to grab in the rivalry nonetheless. It leveled UNC’s record against Duke at 4-4 over the last three seasons after a period in which Duke ran wild, winning 10 of 13. Also, it led me to discover a helpful rule of thumb of UNC fandom – any season that features two wins over Duke in which they do not make the Final Four is a good season.
-Mar. 3, 2012: No. 6 UNC @ No. 4 Duke (88-70): UNC responded to the Austin Rivers catastrophe by shooting 55 percent and never trailing, while building a 48-24 halftime lead to clinch its fourth ACC championship in a winner-take-all over Duke in a five-year stretch.
-Mar. 8, 2008: No. 1 UNC @ No. 6 Duke (76-68): This was the first win of that streak, also euphemistically known as the Danny Green “posterizes” Greg Paulus game. The top-ranked Heels scored the final 10 points of the game, while shutting out the Devils over the last five-plus minutes to seize the conference crown in Cameron.
-Feb. 20, 2014: unranked UNC vs. No. 5 Duke (74-66): After a winter storm postponed the matchup eight days, Carolina rallied from a seven-point halftime deficit to topple Duke for its eighth of what would become 12 straight ACC wins – the longest streak in the Williams era, and their third victory over a top-five opponent on the year. The Dukies got revenge in the season finale, but good thing Mercer would have the last laugh.