There have been 250 meetings between UNC and Duke. Some have had higher stakes, some have had better teams. There have been more memorable finishes, and there have been more iconic plays. But never in the 99-year history of the UNC-Duke rivalry has there been a sweeter Carolina victory.
To understand the greatness of this moment, you have to understand the context: For the first half of the 2000s, Duke had dominated UNC, winning 12 of the first 14 matchups from Y2K onwards. On top of that, they logged a win streak of five straight ACC tournament titles, two National Players of the Year, two Final Fours, and the 2001 National Championship. But with Roy Williams at the helm, the Tar Heels had finally punched back, knocking off Duke in the 2005 season finale and winning the National Championship.
But the 2005 offseason brought a mass exodus from Chapel Hill: The Heels lost their seven leading scorers to the NBA Draft and to graduation. Despite some promising incoming freshmen, no one in the country gave Carolina a chance to mount a respectable title defense. ACC pundits picked the Heels to finish 6th in conference. Sports Illustrated went even further, leaving UNC out of their projected NCAA Tournament field in preseason.
The Tar Heels refused to accept the damning forecast. Veterans David Noel, Reyshawn Terry, and Wes Miller stepped up and accepted far greater roles on the 2006 team. Terry became a strong scorer, both inside and outside, Miller stepped into a starting role, and Noel (the last remaining member of the Class of 2006) became the team captain and vocal leader.
Joining them were the freshman class of Tyler Hansbrough, Danny Green, Marcus Ginyard, and Bobby Frasor. This class has since etched its name into Carolina lore, but at the time it was widely regarded as one potential star (Hansbrough) and some nice pieces. But they outperformed expectations all season long, grabbing an upset win at Kentucky to set the tone for the season, and bouncing in and out of the rankings from December to March.
Duke, meanwhile returned their two All-American stars JJ Redick and Shelden Williams for their senior seasons. With a solid cast of veterans, joined with incoming freshmen Josh McRoberts and Greg Paulus, they were preseason #1 and heavy favorites to win it all in April. They played like it too, crushing #2 Texas in the anticipated 1 vs 2 battle, ripping through the ACC, and going 27-2 ahead of their regular season finale. Williams, the reigning Defensive Player of the Year, took home the honors again, averaging over three blocks a game and going 18 and 10 on points and boards.
Then there was Redick. Younger fans may point to Grayson Allen as the biggest Duke villain of their lifetime, but Redick was a special kind of villain: He was never dirty like Allen, but he was supremely cocky (his three-fingered shocker celebration was maddening), he wrote pretentious slam poetry (no, seriously) and his wall-to-wall TV coverage was enough to make anyone envious. And the worst of it was he was just so darn good. In 2006 he put on one of the greatest displays of shooting in college basketball history. We all hated Allen, but we never feared him like we did Redick.
In the first matchup against UNC, he put on a clinic:
Redick tortured the backcourt of Bobby Frasor and Wes Miller all night long, both with his shooting and his opportunistic defense. It was widely expected that one month later, on Senior Night in Cameron, he would do so again. In the intervening time, he became Duke’s all-time leading scorer, and shortly afterward became the ACC’s. When the Tar Heels rolled into Durham for the rematch, the Blue Devils were still #1.
But the Tar Heels had done some work of their own after the first matchup: Since then, the Tar Heels had rattled off six straight wins, most of them blowouts, to jump into second place in the ACC Standings, and were ranked #15 in the country at 20-6. Maybe it was the confidence of youth, or maybe it was just an accurate reading of the cosmos, but Roy Williams told the team in the locker room before tipoff, “There’s only one team that can come in here and win this game...you guys.”
It didn’t start well: Before a raucous Cameron and a record-setting audience watching on all the ESPN networks, the Blue Devils came out of the gates on fire. Redick hit his first four shots and before the Heels had time to blink it was 13-2 Duke. The next five and a half minutes may have been the most important minutes of the season: With the home crowd at full throat and the National Player of the Year smelling blood, the Tar Heels dug in and fought back defensively. Duke didn’t score in that stretch, and Carolina got back into the game.
The first half went back and forth, the Heels eventually taking their first lead at 37-35 in the final minute, before a Lee Melchionni three gave Duke the lead back heading into the locker room: 38-37. Hansbrough had played well against Shelden Williams, tallying 10 points to lead UNC. Meanwhile, Redick hadn’t made another shot after his 4-4 start.
Early in the second half, things were very even, neither team able to grab a lead of more than three points. With the under 12 timeout approaching, Bobby Frasor nailed a three to give UNC a 54-52 lead. After the timeout, he hit another one. It would trigger a Carolina run. Redick, hounded by Ginyard, was still off, and UNC was beginning to heat up. Hansbrough, who had been wreaking havoc inside, made a couple baskets, then Roy Williams inserted the seldom-used Quentin Thomas and Byron Sanders to give the starters a break before the under-8. Thomas and Sanders came up huge, with Sanders nailing two straight layups and Thomas handing out three assists, and the lead grew.
Duke attempted to battle back into the game, cutting the lead to 8 and forcing Carolina into a poor possession approaching the 3-minute mark. Then Hansbrough made the shot of the game. You know the one:
That shot would have snatched the life right out of any other team, but this was Duke-Carolina and this was Senior Night and, just as Carolina had done the year before, the Duke veterans made a comeback. Shelden Williams made a dunk to bring it to single digits, then stuffed UNC on the other end. Demarcus Nelson hit a huge three and, after a UNC miss, Lee Melchionni tipped in a layup, spraining his ankle in the process but continuing to play. UNC forced a bad shot, and Melchionni found Nelson for another three: 77-74 UNC. It had all the makings of a classic Duke comeback: The role player Nelson stepping up for the struggling Redick, fan favorite Melchionni making plays hobbling around on one leg. And UNC’s young stars seemed to know it, forcing up another bad shot, which Duke rebounded with one minute to go and a chance to tie.
If Hansbrough’s shot was the play of the game, what came next was the stop of the game. The Tar Heels blocked off Redick on the wing, not allowing him to get the ball for a game-tying three. Danny Green (or should I say, two-time NBA champion Danny Green) locked down on Sean Dockery, who put the ball on the deck and tried to convert a floater, which Green pinned before he could get the shot up. It was Duke’s last gasp: Hansbrough and Frasor, two freshmen with absolutely no fear of the moment, nailed six-straight free throws to salt the game away 83-76.
As a stunned and beautifully silent Cameron Indoor Stadium looked on, Hansbrough and Noel brandished their jerseys at the crowd, and the young Tar Heels celebrated the most unlikely of victories. It was a seminal moment in UNC-Duke history: Hansbrough would become the only Tar Heel to be named a four-time First-Team All-American. He and his classmates would would go on to enjoy the best four year stretch in Carolina history, winning three ACC Regular Season titles, two tournament titles, reaching two Final Fours, and winning it all in 2009.
Oh, and they finished 4-0 and Durham as well.