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The 25 Greatest Games in UNC History: #9 - The Marvin Williams Game

A dramatic comeback gave UNC its greatest regular season win of the 21st century

Duke v UNC Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

Jim Nantz: “Miss! One of two, and the rebound...Carolina!”

Billy Packer: “And a foul-”

22,125 Tar Heel Fans: “YEEEEEEEAAAAAH!”

When you watch sports on television there comes a moment, every once in a while, where the noise of a crowd is the thing that stands out the most. Marvin Williams’ go-ahead putback and-one against Duke in 2005 is one of those moments. The crowd didn’t just explode, it formed a single, unified note, projected all at once. Years later, Roy Williams still says it’s the loudest he’s ever heard the Dean Dome. To understand this simultaneous release of bottled-up emotion, you have to remember what had led up to the play, both in the game and in the seasons before it.

North Carolina was in its second year of the Roy Williams Era and, to the outside eye, things seemed to be going just swimmingly: The Tar Heels were 25-3, 13-2 in the ACC and were ranked #2 in the country. They had an overpowering cast of characters, from dominant big man Sean May, to superstar point guard Raymond Felton, to a virtuoso swingman Rashad McCants who must not be named, along with a terrific supporting cast of Jawad and Marvin Williams, Jackie Manuel, Melvin Scott, and David Noel. They were talented, deep, and experienced. All good, right?

Nope. Not by a long shot. The Tar Heels of 2005 had one other thing going for them: Unfinished business. Despite their immense talent, they had a massive chip on their shoulders, borne of years of frustration. With only a couple exceptions, the core of the team had endured the torture of the Matt Doherty years. The senior class of Jawad, Manuel, and Scott in particular had started their UNC careers with the notorious 8-20 season in 2002. May, Felton, McCants, and Noel had spent their first year on a run that ended in the NIT. Even in Roy Williams’ first season, the Tar Heels had lost a series of close games. “Heartbreak Hotel,” Dick Vitale called it. By the regular season finale in 2005, the Tar Heels were a great team, yes, but they hadn’t won the ACC, they hadn’t made a Final Four, and they hadn’t beaten Duke.

Let’s talk about the Duke point: Roy Williams’ first three games against the Blue Devils had all come down to the wire and all three had ended in shockingly familiar fashion: First, there was the game where Chris Duhon went coast to coast to hit a reverse layup and beat UNC in Double OT; next there was a UNC player slipping on the Cameron floor and coughing up the ball on what could have been a game-tying possession; finally, in 2005, there was Raymond Felton picking up his dribble in Durham to bungle the final possession and allowing Duke to survive a furious Tar Heel comeback. The Blue Devils were the itch that UNC couldn’t scratch. Every Tar Heel fan understood that if the Heels couldn’t get the job done on Senior Night, it would be the most shattering loss of all.

The two teams came into the game missing key pieces: the wing, due to an undisclosed illness, missed his fourth game in a row, while Duke was without starting guard Sean Dockery. Duke was led by ACC Player of the Year JJ Redick and Defensive Player of the Year Shelden Williams. The Tar Heels sat in the driver’s seat of the ACC Standings; their only losses had come to Duke and 2nd-placed Wake Forest. Everything else had been Tar Heel blowouts. A win would secure them their first outright ACC Regular Season title since the 1993 championship season.

The first half was a high-paced scoring spree: Duke started out the game on fire, especially Redick. By the under 8 minute mark, they were shooting 67% from the field...but they were down. UNC, with their size advantage, pounded them on the glass, and had 13 second chance points. Sean May, who was on the best run of his career, with seven straight double-doubles, was hammering Shelden Williams on the inside, despite tenacious defense from the Duke big man.

Foul trouble for Williams and the hated Shavlik Randolph meant Duke needed to tap into their bench, including walk-on Patrick Johnson (remember that name) and Reggie Love. At the half, UNC led 47-41, despite 17 points from Redick. The game was being played at Carolina’s pace as well: In the first matchup, Duke had managed to slow the Heels’ overwhelming attack; in this one, UNC was pushing tempo effectively.

The second half, the Tar Heels committed to stopping Redick, chasing him around screens and doubling him when he got the ball. But this left openings for his fellow junior Lee Melchionni who, in for the injured Dockery, stepped up big: He drilled five threes in the second half. UNC, meanwhile, suddenly went ice-cold. Despite a strong effort defensively and on the glass, UNC fell behind 59-58 on a Daniel Ewing layup at the 10-minute mark.

A concerted attempt to get the ball back inside by UNC was met by Shelden Williams, who victimized Marvin Williams in particular, stuffing him at the rim three times (avoiding possible foul calls, I might add). As the game drew deeper into the second half, Carolina began to lose their poise, turning it over and making mistakes on the defensive end, the familiar late-game loss of focus reappearing at the worst possible time. And Duke was beginning to pull away: When Melchionni drilled his final three of the game, it made it 73-64 with 3 minutes left. Then things started happening:

First, Shavlik Randolph was whistled for his fifth foul, grabbing Jawad Williams as he attempted to post up. Duke went small, playing Shelden Williams and four guards. It backfired: Jawad Williams tipped in a miss to make it 73-66, and on the following possession Ewing dribbled the ball off his foot to give it back to Carolina. Marvin Williams attacked Shelden at the basket once more and this time he got the call. He made two free throws to make it 73-68.

UNC brought in David Noel to help apply pressure in the backcourt, but Noel was whistled for a push-off on Demarcus Nelson, putting Duke in the bonus. Duke, a terrific foul shooting team, had unexpectedly missed its last four free throws, and Nelson made it five, clanging the front end of the one-and-one off the back iron. UNC brought it upcourt and Felton got it to May, who was blocked by Williams, then seized his 22nd rebound and stuck it back up and in plus the foul. 73-71.

Melchionni missed an open corner three but Williams rebounded to give Duke an extra possession. A non-call on a Ewing push off freed up Redick in the corner, then karma struck as he missed as well and UNC got the rebound with a chance to tie. Manuel had a look at the basket but pitched it back out. A wild floater by Felton rattled out and a loose ball scrum under the hoop bounced out of bounds: Duke ball, with 36.8 seconds. UNC brought pressure again and this time Noel forced the steal, knocking it away from Ewing. Felton grabbed the rebound and UNC called timeout right before Duke could force a jump ball (“Arrow Duke!” cried Billy Packer). This set the stage for the finish we all know and love:

Felton, perhaps remembering his error in the first matchup, drove straight to the basket and drew the foul with 19 seconds left. He made the first free throw, 73-72. Duke inserted Patrick Johnson to secure the rebound should Felton miss; Reggie Love could be seen yelling from the Duke bench to box out...

Let’s let Woody Durham take this one:

Marvin’s putback and free throw gave UNC a 75-73 lead with 17 seconds left. Duke called time and drew up a play for Redick. On the final possession, he flew around a screen, losing Jackie Manuel, and got the pass from Nelson. But Noel, alert to the play, left Nelson and stepped out to contest the shot. Despite the contest, Redick’s shot just barely rimmed out. Nelson and Shelden collided trying to grab the board and it bounced out to Ewing, who tried a desperation jumper over Marvin to tie. It fell well short into May’s arms, his 24th and final rebound, and his big hands clutched it as time expired and the Dean Dome erupted.

Marvin Williams was hoisted onto the shoulders of the crowd. Jawad, Melvin, and Jackie embraced amid the mass of cheering students: The 8-20 freshman were now the ACC Champion seniors. Roy Williams implored the students to return to the stands so his players could cut down the nets and make their speeches: “It’s Senior Day, we’re going to do it the right way!”

Sean May finished his greatest game as a Tar Heel with 26 points and 24 rebounds, a miraculous accomplishment considering he was going against an All-American all night. Shelden Williams had a terrific game of his own, finishing with 22 points and 6 blocks. Redick was held to a goose egg in the second half; his 17 first half points were all he got. Felton had 11 points and 6 assists, while Jackie Manuel, normally relegated to the role of a defensive stopper, had 12 points on 5-6 shooting in his last home game.

The roles had finally been reversed: The Blue Devils, so often ice cold under pressure, had wilted down the stretch, and the Tar Heels were the ones celebrating a dramatic rivalry win. But it was more than that, in fact it was more than a regular season title. The comeback on Senior Night was the ultimate psychological victory:

Before March 5th, 2005, the narrative around the team was that they were brilliantly talented, but lacked the mental strength to win close, high-pressure games and that this would bite them come tournament time. Those who watched that game, both in the Dean Dome and on TV, knew that narrative was dead, and that this Tar Heel team just might be the one to win it all.