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UNC vs. Duke: A Breakdown by the Superlatives

From biggest upsets to closest games, let’s dig into the UNC-Duke history books.

NCAA Basketball: Duke at North Carolina Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Every sport has its marquee rivalry and in college basketball, North Carolina is part of it. The twice annual UNC-Duke games are arguably the biggest non-postseason dates in a college basketball year. On top of that, they almost always deliver.

Close games, high profiles games, buzzer beaters, dominant teams, almost anything you can imagine has happened at some point in time. Almost every year, ESPN digs out some graphic that shows just how close the series has been recently, not only in games won, but also in stuff like points scored. So let’s dig back into the history books and look at some of the best matchups in UNC-Duke history.

First Game

The very dumb uniforms worn in the first meeting from this past season were supposed to honor the 100th anniversary of the first time the two played each other back in 1920.

Back when Duke was still Trinity, UNC beat them 36-25 in Durham. At that point, no one could’ve guessed the storied history this series would turn into.

Biggest Beatdowns

A little over one year after the series began, UNC crushed Duke in the biggest margin of victory in series history. On March 5, 1921, Carolina won 55-18. That 37-point victory was the second in a 16-game UNC winning streak that wouldn’t end until 1929. In the modern era, the biggest is a 25-point win for the Tar Heels from 1980.

On the other hand, North Carolina’s worst loss was a 35-point defeat from 1964. It was Dean Smith’s third year at the helm, and was still a couple years before he got UNC into the postseason. Duke ended up dropping 104 points on them on their way to a runner-up finish in the NCAA Tournament.

Closest Games

Seven games have finished with a final margin of exactly one point, while many others have been within with five points.

On January 31, 1996, UNC trailed by as many as 17, and were down 12 going into the half. However, they rallied in the second half, and eventually won on a Dante Calabria tip in late in the game. That is the only time the Heels have won by a solitary point.

Duke have won by just one a couple times, including the buzzer beaters from (FILE NOT FOUND).

Biggest Upsets

Only one time has UNC lost to Duke while ranked #1 in the country. In the semifinals of the 1984 ACC Tournament, the Blue Devils came out on top over a UNC team that did have Michael Jordan, but was trying to bring Kenny Smith back into the fold and was missing Brad Daugherty.

Carolina has beaten #1 Duke teams several times, but they’ve mostly been highly ranked themselves. However, twice they’ve taken down a top five Blue Devils team while unranked. On March 4, 1990, the Heels went on the road and took down the eventual national runners up by 12, led by King Rice’s 20 points. Twenty-four years later, UNC again beat a #5 Duke team. That one came at home in the infamous rescheduled game after a snowstorm postponed the first.

Highest Profile Matchups

On two occasions, UNC and Duke have played each other while being the two top teams in the AP Poll. Both times, Carolina went in as #2 and both times they came out with a W.

The first of those came on February 3, 1994. Led by Derrick Phelps’ 18 points, UNC came away with an 11-point win in the Smith Center. The second of those two occasions is the probably the more memorable one, however.

On February 5, 1998, Duke came into Chapel Hill with a 20-1 record, while UNC sat at 22-1. Of the 18 weeks of the season in which an AP Poll was released, one of the two rivals was #1 in 15 of them. However, you wouldn’t have guessed that the two were so close considering what happened on the court.

UNC closed the game on a 24-4 run, blowing Duke off the court in a 97-73 win. Antawn Jamison stamped his name in the national player of the year race with a 35 point, 11 rebound performance.

Postseason Matchups

The two teams have met several times in ACC Tournaments over the years, most recently in 2019. They’ve played in the tournament championship game 10 times, splitting the titles with five each. However, they’ve only met once in a non-ACC Tournament postseason game.

The two faced off in the semifinals of the 1971 NIT. The Tar Heels came away with the win, and followed that up by beating Georgia Tech to win the NIT. Thankfully for all our sanity, the two haven’t played in the NCAA Tournament yet. Until they do, UNC has the bragging rights in postseason games.