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The 25 Greatest Games in UNC Basketball History: #6 - The Walter Davis Shot

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The greatest comeback in college basketball history

UNC Celebration of a Century Photo by Robert Willett/Raleigh News & Observer/MCT via Getty Images

It was 86-78 with 17 seconds remaining and Phil Ford had seen enough. The high school senior and Tar Heel commit, so disgusted that his future teammates and fellow alums were about to be knocked off on Senior Night by the hapless Duke Blue Devils, switched off his television set and went to go wash the family car. All he missed was the greatest moment in UNC-Duke history.

The 1974 season was one of the greatest the ACC has ever had: Top-ranked NC State, led by David Thompson, won the National Championship. To do so, they had to overcome #3 Maryland, led by Len Elmore and John Lucas, in the ACC Championship Game, arguably the best and most significant game in conference history. North Carolina, despite being the third best team in the conference all season, was ranked in the top 5 all year and were led by senior captain and All-American Bobby Jones (recently elected to the Basketball Hall of Fame), along with freshman sensation Walter Davis, veteran guard Darrell Ellston, and big men Mitch Kupchak and Ed Stahl. These Tar Heels would give the ACC its most unlikely comeback.

Missing out on the parade of greatness that year were the Blue Devils, who were in the midst of their worst run in program history. The Blue Devils spent the mid-70s at the bottom of the ACC, a few years past the Vic Bubas Era and still a half-decade away from the reign of Mike Krzyzewski. (Trivia Question: Who was the Head Coach of the Blue Devils in the 1973-74 season? Answer will be found at the end of this piece.) They finished the season 10-16 and two of their losses came at the hands of the Tar Heels in truly heartbreaking fashion.

UNC had already beaten the Blue Devils 84-75 in the Greensboro Coliseum earlier in the year, but the second matchup in Cameron was particularly agonizing. Duke had played far above their pay grade: With 4 seconds left, they had the ball with the score tied at 71. They attempted to inbound near midcourt, but Jones picked it off, took it back the other way and laid it in at the buzzer for a 73-71 UNC victory. A game-winning, buzzer-beating steal in Durham. This should be remembered as one of the greatest finishes in UNC-Duke history. It isn’t. That’s because six weeks later, the Tar Heels topped it.

UNC came into the regular season finale with a record of 19-4. They were ranked #4 in the country but had just lost a tough game in Raleigh to the Wolfpack. With Bobby Jones, Darrell Ellston, and others making their final appearance in Chapel Hill, they were hoping to bounce back with an easy victory. But Duke, 10-14 record and all, played yet another superb game against the favored Tar Heels. Before a stunned (and emptying) Carmichael Auditorium, the Blue Devils held an 8-point lead with 17 seconds left, Ellston had fouled out of the game, and Phil Ford was washing his car.

Then, as the late great Woody Durham would say, “things started happening.”

Jones was fouled by Bob Fleischer and knocked down two free throws, to cut the lead to 86-80. UNC then sent all five men forward in a full court press. Fleischer attempted to inbound the ball under the hoop, but threw it to...well, no one wearing a Duke uniform. Davis grabbed the ball and tossed it inside to fellow frosh John Kuester, in for the fouled-out Ellston, who laid it in. 86-82. Fleischer tried again: This time he ran the baseline and, with his five seconds running out, found Tate Armstrong right under the hoop. But Davis reached around Armstrong and disrupted the pass, which bounced off Armstrong’s hands and out of bounds. UNC ball, no time off the clock.

Davis got the inbounds pass but missed a baseline jumper (a rarity for him). Jones, who had won a State Championship with Davis at South Mecklenburg High, corralled the rebound stuck it back up and in. 86-84, six seconds left. Duke finally managed to get the ball inbounds and Pete Kramer was fouled with four seconds left, sending Duke to the line for a one-and-one. Even this worked out for the Tar Heels: At 58%, Kramer was Duke’s worst foul shooter. He missed the front end and Ed Stahl grabbed the rebound as Carolina signaled for a time out. UNC ball, three seconds left, down two.

In the huddle, Dean Smith grinned at his players: “Isn’t this fun?” he said. “You guys are going to win the game.” Then he called a play that they had gone over extensively in practice: The play was for senior guard Ray Hite to inbound the ball to Walter Davis at midcourt. Davis, freed up by two high screens, would then get in range and fire it up.

There was one issue: Duke’s head coach was no Rick Pitino: He put his big man, Chris Redding, on the ball to smother out any chance of a long pass from the 6’0 Hite. Smith then inserted the 6’11 Mitch Kupchak to make the pass instead. Kupchak had been meant to crash the boards for the chance of a putback. Now he would have to cover 94 feet in three seconds in order to do so. No way. He’d just have to hope Walter’s aim was true.

Davis got the ball at midcourt and raced towards the hoop as Redding, now removed from the baseline since Kupchak was making the pass, closed out. Walter pulled up right at the hash mark, a good 28 feet out, and threw up a prayer. I say threw because if you look at the shot Walter Davis, who possessed one of the sweetest shots in Carolina basketball history, doesn’t follow through. His arm goes straight up in order to clear Redding’s contest. But because he threw it straight up, when it hit the backboard it didn’t bounce out (as a normal shot would at that speed and range), it bounced down. Down...and in.

For the record, a close examination of the tape shows Mitch Kupchak standing right under the hoop as the shot banks in. The big man did cover the distance in three seconds. It didn’t matter. Eight points, seventeen seconds, no three-point line. Tie game.

Carmichael erupted and the thousands of fans in the parking lot were suddenly fighting to get back inside. The Tar Heels, led by Davis, Hite, and backup Brad Hoffman, took control in overtime and won it 96-92. The Daily Tar Heel the following day ran the following headline: “Devils’ Exorcism.”

The win was a fitting sendoff for Jones and the seniors, served as a legend-making moment for Davis, one of UNC’s greatest players, and handed Duke its most shattering defeat in the rivalry’s history, in the midst of a run where they lost 16 of 17 games to Carolina. But above all, it served as the most unlikely comeback in a rivalry filled with them. Duke has Jeff Capel and Austin Rivers. UNC has Walter Davis. Who would you take?

(By the way, if you said Neill McGeachy, you’re correct! He coached only one season in Durham, falling between Bucky Waters and Bill Foster. And you thought Pete Gaudet had a rough year...)