When it was all over and elated Tar Heel students were storming onto the Dean Dome floor, Mike Patrick said it best: “There is just something magical about this rivalry. These people go after each other tooth and nail...” Considering the enduring image of the game, the bloody face of UNC sophomore Eric Montross, Patrick’s quote was no exaggeration; it was quite literal.
Few games have entered into the lexicon of the Duke-Carolina rivalry quite like the showdown on February 5th, 1992. The defending champion Blue Devils came into Chapel Hill undefeated and still #1 in the country. They were riding a 23-game winning streak, going back to the previous year’s NCAA Tournament run. They had trailed just three times in the second half all season: On the road against Michigan’s Fab Five, at Virginia, and at Florida State. Every time, in the closing minutes, they had found a way to win. Led by National Player of the Year Christian Laettner, All-American Bobby Hurley, and all-world swingman Grant Hill, they were loaded, experienced, and clutch.
The last team to beat them? The North Carolina Tar Heels. The last time Duke had tasted defeat was the 1991 ACC Tournament Championship, when Rick Fox, King Rice, and Company thrashed them 96-74. After that, things went horribly wrong: The Heels were upset in the National Semifinal by Roy Williams’ Kansas Jayhawks, a game in which Dean Smith received possibly the most bogus ejection in college basketball history. Three hours later, Duke stunned undefeated UNLV and went on to win the title. Duke, so long the bridesmaids of college basketball, were finally the bride, and UNC had suddenly become second best. The folks in Chapel Hill were starving for revenge.
UNC in 1992 was an odd team. Senior captain Hubert Davis had developed into a brilliant shooter over his four years in Chapel Hill and was their go-to scorer, but outside of him, they were a woeful perimeter team. They had terrific defenders in George Lynch, Derrick Phelps, and Brian Reese and led the ACC in field goal percentage defense. But they were inconsistent at the foul line (a rarity for Dean Smith teams) and had questions on the interior, particularly with Eric Montross, who had come to Chapel Hill as the top recruit in his high school class, but hadn’t quite lived up to the hype as a sophomore starter. That ended on February 5th.
The ninth-ranked Tar Heels pressed their size advantage in the paint, attempting to overwhelm the smaller, quicker Blue Devils. Laettner, so often Duke’s bread and butter, was hounded in the post, never able to touch the ball on the block without seeing double coverage. Montross meanwhile was hunting his shot more than usual and everyone on Carolina was hitting the boards, including sophomore backup Pat Sullivan, who had two straight putbacks early on. It was a physical, aggressive game, with both teams hammering away at one another and establishing some “elbow room.”
Midway through the first half, Montross was forced to the bench, the back of his head bleeding heavily. A half-dozen stitches later, he’d be back on the floor. Meanwhile, George Lynch and Brian Reese both found themselves in early foul trouble. In their stead, Dean inserted Kevin Salvadori, a good shot blocker but not much of a scorer or rebounder. Salvadori rose to the occasion, making several first half buckets, and when Montross re-entered, Carolina went with their two bigs. But Duke, led by Grant Hill and Brian Davis, survived the initial challenge, and at the half it was 39-38 Blue Devils.
At the start of the second half, Reese returned and led a furious opening charge. The Heels scored the first ten pointspoints of the half, sending the Dean Dome into a frenzy. Laettner could be seen hollering at his teammates, particularly Thomas Hill, over their inability to get him the ball inside. Duke now trailed by 9, their largest deficit of the season, and it looked like they were ripe for shaking.
For the mid-section of the second half, it was Montross’ show, posting both Laettner and Cherokee Parks, hitting turnaround hooks, dunks, and free throws (not a given for him at the time). In this midst of this came his iconic image, shooting free throws through a gash under his left eye, blood trickling down. There was no doubting him now: When he wheeled in the lane on Parks to make it 63-56 with 9:30 to go, Dick Vitale declared “This is the REAL Eric Montross!”
But that hookshot was Carolina’s last field goal of the game and, like they did all year, Duke didn’t panic. The game stayed physical and, at times, nasty. And I think you can guess who the nasty came from: Skip to 1:41:45 of the game tape for Christian “Why on earth did my Tar Heel father give me the same name as him?” Laettner stomping on Brian Reese’s head (Aminu Timberlake, we feel you man...) and to 1:50:25 for him grabbing Salvadori’s jersey and trying to toss him on top of Reese.
The Tar Heels hit 12 of their last 15 free throws down the stretch to hang on, but their inability to hit shots allowed Duke to stick around. With a minute and a half left Carolina’s lead was down to four. Grant Hill made an athletic and-one but missed the free throw. Laettner tipped the missed shot out to a teammate and on the bonus possession he corralled a Thomas Hill miss and stuck it back up and in. 73-73, one minute left.
Derrick Phelps was fouled by Hurley on the ensuing possession and nailed both free throws. Duke came up court with a chance to tie or take the lead, but Laettner barely missed a shot over Montross on the low block with 25 seconds left. Duke frantically tried to foul but UNC eluded them, moving the ball up court to Brian Reese who dove to the hoop. As he extended to lay it in, Hurley reached in and fouled him to prevent the basket but the refs inexplicably didn’t make the call. Montross blew the putback slam and the ball was chased down by Laettner. Incredibly, Duke still had a chance.
Laettner had a good look at a go-ahead three but with Salvadori looming, he put it on the deck and instead tried to hit a tough contested floater in the lane. It bounced off, Phelps grabbed the rebound, and ran out the clock. Two months earlier, Sam Cassell had delivered his famous “Wine and Cheese Crowd” assessment of the Dean Dome. No such crowd on this day: The building erupted, fans streaming onto the court while Montross, stitches in both sides of his face, raised his fists at center court and let out a roar. Duke was unbeaten no longer.
Hubert Davis led UNC’s scorers with 16 points, while Montross and Salvadori both had 12, Montross adding 10 rebounds and three blocks. Derrick Phelps had four steals and played terrific defense on Bobby Hurley, who had one of his tough nights in the Dean Dome. Brian Davis led Duke with 17 points and Grant Hill had 10 and 7 assists. Laettner, dogged by Montross and Salvadori all game, finished with 12 points and 12 rebounds.
The Blue Devils would take revenge in Cameron a month later and would win the rubber match in the ACC Tournament Final a week after that, before winning it all in Minneapolis. But the game that has become known as “Bloody Montross” has gone down in Carolina lore as the night a scrappy UNC team used every last ounce of blood, sweat, and tears to overcome Duke’s greatest team.