The last 25 years have been kinder to the North Carolina Tar Heels than any other basketball program. That stretch has featured four National Championships (tied for most with UConn) and ten Final Fours (most). Add to that a bevy of ACC Regular Season and Tournament crowns and there’s been little to complain about in Chapel Hill (except 2002 and 2010 of course). Though the Carolina Way has always stressed team first, we have still been treated to some truly incredible individual performances by Tar Heel greats.
Here is the first installment of the Top 25 performances of the last 25 years:
25. Kendall Marshall @ Duke in 2012
Kendall Marshall’s pregame speech might have earned him a spot on this list alone. One month earlier, Austin Rivers had hit his famous shot and UNC had been forced to watch endless replays of it in the following weeks. That didn’t stop the folks at Cameron Indoor Stadium from playing it one more time right after the starter introductions. Marshall gathered the team around and, using choice words no doubt, told them that they were going to make the Dookies pay.
The Heels played well across the board that night, charging out to a 48-24 halftime lead and finishing with an 88-70 victory, but Marshall led the way, scoring 20 points and handing out 10 assists. As he had in the weeks leading up to the game, he had started to hunt for his shot more and his dominant play against Duke showed just how good the Tar Heels could be when he was a scorer as well as a great facilitator. Marshall won the Cousy Award that year and this was his most meaningful performance.
24. Wayne Ellington Torches Miami in 2009
Early in the 2008-09 season, Wayne Ellington’s shot was M.I.A. The Heels had dropped two surprising games early in ACC play and Ellington’s struggles from the perimeter were one reason why. When the Hurricanes came to Chapel Hill in mid-January, Ellington was still struggling and at halftime had a goose egg. But in the second half, he broke out of his slump the way a greyhound breaks out of the blocks at the bell.
Ellington drilled seven threes in less than ten minutes, catapulting the Tar Heels to victory and erasing any lingering concerns about his ability to get back on track. He finished with 23 second half points and his hot-shooting would carry all the way to the Final Four, where he was named MVP.
23. Justin Jackson vs. Kentucky 2016
This performance, arguably the best in Jackson’s time at Chapel Hill, has already been largely forgotten. It’s understandable: Tar Heel fans prefer to remember Luke Maye in the Elite Eight rematch and Kentucky fans remember Malik Monk’s preposterous 47-point barrage. But what people forget is that while Monk was the star of the show, Jackson was lights out as well, scoring 34 points on 10-17 shooting.
Jackson and Monk traded baskets throughout much of what has to be one of the most entertaining matchups Kentucky and Carolina have ever played. It may have ultimately been in a losing effort, but without Jackson’s play, this game isn’t the classic that it was.
22. Brice Johnson’s 29 and 19 Against Duke, 2016
Speaking of great performances in a losing cause, this is (for me at least) the most infuriating performance to make the list. I still have no idea how we lost this game and the reason I don’t is Brice Johnson. For the first 25 minutes of the 2016 showdown in Chapel Hill, Brice could do no wrong. He dominated the Blue Devils in the paint, scoring 25 points in the first half and ripping down 11 boards. When Marshall Plumlee got into foul trouble, it seemed destined that Brice would take the Heels all the way home.
But Duke defended furiously, fronting the post, closing off entry passes, and doing everything possible to keep Brice from getting the ball. And Carolina just...let it happen. Had UNC continued to feed him in the post, he’d probably be top 10 on this list. As it is, his was a brilliant performance in a shattering defeat.
21. He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named Downs UConn in 2004
Yes, I know. For the record, I thought long and hard about leaving him off the list. Boo and hiss if you like, but here’s why he’s on here: The win over #1 (and eventual national champion UConn) was Roy’s first big time win since taking the job at UNC. After that day, there could be no mistaking that UNC was back and it was back in a big way. And You-Know-Who, with his 27 points and cold-blooded gamewinner, was the one who made it possible.
UConn had looked well nigh unbeatable coming into Chapel Hill, behind Emeka Okafor and Ben Gordon, and even though Okafor manhandled Sean May in the post and Ben Gordon outperformed the UNC backcourt, #32’s perimeter shooting won the day, as it did many times that season.