With the dog days of summer approaching and the long wait about to begin, we are introducing a new series: The 25 Greatest Games in UNC Basketball History. Of course, “great” is a subjective word in sports, fit to be debated in bars, living rooms, and interminable airport security lines. With a long and storied history like UNC’s, there are bound to be many worthy games that don’t make the cut (maybe even a few with Worthy in them, heheh). As such, here are the factors that must be considered for ranking “greatness”
- Quality of Game - The Game must be well-played throughout and contested between two quality opponents. For example, the 2017 National Title game is on this list, but not as high, since it was a rock fight.
- Historical Significance - The game must have a lasting impact on UNC and preferably its opponent, as well as college basketball as a whole.
- Impact on the Season - Obviously we will be weighted somewhat in favor of postseason games and rivalry games
- Drama - Unforgettable moments, furious finishes, bad blood (sometimes literally) all weigh in our decisions.
Got all that? Cool, because like I said this is subjective and we welcome/encourage/demand debate here at THB. Feel free to add your thoughts below! And now, our first game:
January 18th, 1986 - UNC 95, Duke 92
Dean Smith was getting a building named after him, and undefeated Duke was coming to town to take on undefeated Carolina. There are about 400 schools in America for which those two sentences would be enough to put this game in their top five. But this is Carolina. There are A LOT of big games.
The long-awaited unveiling of the cavernous Dean E. Smith Center took place in the midst of a terrific battle for the ACC between the Tar Heels and the Blue Devils. UNC had a loaded veteran team led by Brad Daugherty and Kenny Smith. Duke, meanwhile, was in the middle of what was shaping up to be the best season in school history. They were led by seniors Johnny Dawkins (the eventual National Player of the Year), Mark Alarie, Dave Henderson, and Jay Bilas. Both teams came into the game undefeated; UNC was ranked #1, Duke #3. And with second-ranked Michigan falling two days earlier, this was now a heavyweight fight for undisputed #1.
The final score was close, but the game was mostly controlled by the Tar Heels, who went on a 15-2 run midway through the first half — jumpstarted by a technical foul on Coach K (yup, this was back when refs actually gave him those) — to take a 33-26 lead. The Tar Heels stretched their lead out to double digits in the second half and had the game well in hand before a spirited Duke rally made it tight in the closing minutes.
Carolina dominated the Blue Devils in the paint, with Daugherty racking up 23 points and 11 rebounds and out-dueling the Duke bigs. But the surprise star of the night was Steve Hale, mostly used as a defensive stopper in his career, who played a brilliant all-around game, scoring 28 points and dishing 5 assists, to go with 4 boards and 3 steals. Many of his points came on backdoor layups that came courtesy of Daugherty, posted high on the block to pull defenders away from the hoop (a tactic often employed for him in his pro career in Cleveland).
For Duke, Dawkins and Henderson carried much of the load, combining for 46 of Duke’s 92 points. The Blue Devils would eventually get their revenge in the return game in Durham, then go on to win the ACC Tournament and march all the way to the Final Four before falling in the title game to Louisville, who had knocked the Heels out in the Sweet Sixteen.
The last 33 years have seen some brilliant basketball games played under the rafters of the Dean Dome. The first made for a pretty darn good opening act.