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UNC vs. Duke: When The Underdog Wins

UNC will face long odds against Duke on Saturday night. But that hasn’t stopped them in the past.

The Tar Heels celebrate

To paraphrase Casey At The Bat: The outlook isn’t brilliant for the Tar Heel Five on Saturday. A strong, if unspectacular, Duke squad comes to Chapel Hill, looking to make short work of wounded Carolina. Anywhere you look in the matchup, there are problems, from health, to depth, to talent, and so forth. But as Bryson put yesterday, UNC has played Duke well as underdogs in recent years and if there’s one thing that remains eternal, it’s that nothing is guaranteed when the Tar Heels and Blue Devils square off.

Some of the most important wins in Carolina history have come as heavy underdogs and in the face of rampant (and often justified, if we’re being honest) pessimism. Here are the most memorable UNC underdog wins over Duke:

1965: UNC 65, #6 Duke 62

Dean Smith

The Dean Smith Effigy Game. If you think people are ticked off NOW about how Carolina basketball is doing, count your lucky stars that you didn’t experience what happened on January 6th, 1965. The Heels were 6-6, had lost four in a row, and fans had had enough. After an embarrassing loss to Wake Forest, the Tar Heels returned to Chapel Hill to find a dummy of Dean Smith hanging by the neck outside Woollen Gym. An all-time low point for the Carolina Family.

As I wrote back in May, the Tar Heels, led by future Hall of Famer Billy Cunningham, didn’t take it lying down. Despite being heavy underdogs against a Duke team that had owned them in recent years (Duke was riding a seven-game rivalry win streak), UNC went into Cameron three days later and got the win. It swung their season and they closed conference play winning nine of their last 11.

1990: UNC - 79, #8 Duke - 60

UNC 87, #5 Duke 75

University of North Carolina Tar Heels Photo by Tim DeFrisco/Getty Images

How about TWO underdog wins over Duke in one year? Rather like this year’s squad, 1990 Tar Heels started their season with a lot of promise, ranked #7 in the preseason poll. But they struggled almost immediately out of the gate, losing four of their first eight games. A team that had plenty of talent in Scott Williams, Rick Fox, King Rice, Hubert Davis, and Kevin Madden could seem to put it together. By the time they hosted the Blue Devils in January, they were just 11-6 and going nowhere fast in the ACC.

Duke on the other hand was a top team, riding a nine game win streak. They were led by Phil Henderson, Alaa Abdelnaby, and Christian Laettner (pardon my French). UNC, however, turned in their best performance of the season up to that point, thrashing Duke by nineteen points.

Duke recovered well enough, going 9-4 in the ACC ahead of the rematch in Cameron. UNC, however, remained sporadic the rest of the way, collecting a solid road win at NC State, but following it up with clunkers at Georgia Tech and in the return game against the Wolfpack. They even threw in a three game losing streak in February for good measure. Did it matter when they went to Cameron? Nope. UNC throttled the Devils again, winning 87-75 and wrecking Henderson and Abdelnaby’s Senior Night.

2003: UNC 82, #8 Duke 79

Raymond Felton drives

For all the tumult and disappointment of Matt Doherty’s tenure at UNC, he at least went out with one heckuva home finale. The 2003 Tar Heels looked to be off and running when they stunned Roy’s #2 Kansas Jayhawks in Madison Square Garden and won the Preseason NIT. But the young core hit growing pains shortly afterward and when Sean May broke his foot against Iona (this time the Garden floor being less kind) it all fell apart.

The Heels had managed to climb into the rankings after their early success, but toppled out of it, despite the promising play of Raymond Felton, Jawad Williams, and that swingman who wore #32. They were in free fall by February, when an 83-74 defeat in Cameron handed UNC their fifth loss in a row. They would be 5-10 in ACC play coming into the season finale against the Blue Devils. Duke was also a young, talented team but they had a better grip on their season, coming in ranked in the top ten, and hadn’t lost to the Heels in two years.

The game was one of the most heated in UNC-Duke history, featuring Dahntay Jones’ swipe on Raymond Felton and the scuffle between Matt Doherty and Chris Collins. Between the swiping and sniping, there were 21 lead changes, a fantastic freshman performance from Felton, who ended with 18 points, eight rebounds, and 10 assists (#32 had 26 points as well) and an almost-classic shot by Jones, who buried a 30-foot bomb that would have tied the game had it not come an instant after the horn. UNC swarmed the Dean Dome floor after the victory, which ensured the season was not a complete disappointment.

2014: UNC - 74, #5 Duke - 66

Duke v North Carolina

The high point of the wild and crazy 2013-14 season. Also the night I realized just how amazing and loyal friends my friends were: This game fell on my birthday and in lieu of a party they agreed to watch with me and tolerated my reaching the point of hysteria in the second half (Most of them couldn’t possibly care less about college basketball).

Between astonishing upsets, maddening defeats, frustrating suspensions, and breathtaking second half performances, UNC that season was enough to drive anyone to distraction. Pretty much that entire season was encapsulated in one game when Duke (after a weather-based postponement) finally came to Chapel Hill on February 20th.

The Blue Devils, led by Jabari Parker and Rodney Hood, were on a five-game win streak and looked to be in the hunt for a #1 seed, as well as an ACC Regular Season title. UNC, however, had righted the ship at last and were on a seven-game run of their own, largely behind the play of Marcus Paige and the return of Leslie McDonald.

Duke led most of the way, taking an 11-point edge early in the second half, before UNC began to claw back. Paige, a non-factor in the first half, sprang to life, while McDonald and James Michael McAdoo delivered big buckets of their own. Midway through the comeback push, both teams’ offenses stalled: In one of the most agonizing sequences in UNC-Duke memory, the two teams combined for just two points in a five-minute stretch, both sides defending furiously. UNC finally broke the drought at the seven-minute mark and the rally was back on.

UNC took the lead with just under four minutes left and managed to make their last ten free throws (something they were horrendous at all year) down the stretch to pull it out. McDonald finished with 21 points to lead all scorers, while Paige added 13, all coming in the second half.

To be sure, if Carolina were to pull the upset against Duke tomorrow, it would rank head and shoulders above the others as far as unexpected victories. But being down and out has never prevented UNC from bringing their A-game when that team from Durham comes calling. So say your prayers and hold your loved ones close, because anything could happen.