Chapel Hill Magazine published a blog post from a UNC senior who gave up a ticket to the Carolina-Duke game to attend the wedding of a close friend. It was an admirable decision that I have no intention of questioning, despite what many who know me may think, though I will refrain from considering what my own decision would have been if I had faced the same predicament (I am thankful that I did not). It is important to add that it is only a decision for those eight games while I was a student; for a short list of close friends and family, most of whom would not get married during the game anyway, I would without hesitation miss one of the many Carolina-Duke games I will now enjoy as an alumnus.
But the point here is that those eight games were experiences I looked forward to my entire life, through many Carolina-Duke games as a kid, and I’m not sure there is one that I could trade looking back on through many more for the rest of my life. It helps that Carolina was 5-3 in those eight games (and only that after two losses in 2010). But its the greatest rivalry in sports, rooted in both basketball and culture, and best of all, Duke gives us just enough of a run to keep things relatively equal, but we come out on top in every important category. Those eight games in order of magnitude in the narrative of my Carolina basketball memory:
8. March 6, 2010, Duke 82 Carolina 50. Notable only because I watched it with three good friends at a Carolina bar in Washington, D.C. on an epic Spring Break road trip, this game was otherwise an utter disaster. That it represents a memorable transition to watching these games as an alumnus prevents it from being left entirely off the list.
7. February 10, 2010, Duke 64 Carolina 54. As this was my senior night in the Dean Dome, it was my one and only experience watching Carolina-Duke from the risers. It became a special night when a struggling team gave Duke a really tough shot, but ultimately this season will never carry as much weight in my memory as the preceding three.
6. March 4, 2007, Carolina 86 Duke 72. It may be a surprise that a Carolina victory (and my first home Duke game as a student) appears on this list prior to the last remaining loss I experience as a student. However, other than the Henderson-Hansbrough nose-breaking incident during garbage time, this game was an absolute snoozer. Credit that to Duke for not rising to the challenge; it was a pleasantly rough year for the Blue Devils, who proceeded to lose their next two games, one to N.C. State in the ACC tournament before slipping to a six-seed and falling to VCU in the first round of the NCAA’s.
5. March 8, 2008, Carolina 76 Duke 68. This was a statement game for the Heels after losing at home in the first meeting minus Ty Lawson. Home for Spring Break, I watched this one with my family in Charlotte. Of my four years at Carolina, 2008 was the year in which the two teams were most closely matched, and a tense game was concluded when Carolina made a historic and somewhat uncharacteristic defensive stand, shutting Duke down for the final five minutes. This game also included one of every student’s favorite moments of the rivalry: Danny Green dunking over Greg Paulus and shaming the onlooking Dookies.
4. February 6, 2008, Duke 89 Carolina 78. A game which we painfully lost achieves such a high spot in this list for a couple of reasons. Again, 2008 was the tightest year of the rivalry, whereas 2007, 2009, and 2010 were characterized by one-sided domination. More importantly, from my spot in the Fever section, where I watched two other Duke games and countless others, tip-off of this game was the loudest I ever heard the Dean Dome, matching every expectation I had ever had for what these games should feel like. It was a loss that came without Lawson and after Duke hit 13 threes, six from Greg Paulus. We redeemed it a month later before going to the Final Four. Duke lost in the second round.
3. February 7, 2007, Carolina 79 Duke 73. Another game that had all the makings of my ideal Carolina-Duke experience. It was my first of my college years, and I watched it in the Craige North 4th floor lounge with a large group of friends. It was a tense game, which led to the RA having to make a futile attempt at quieting us (seriously??). We won, Josh McRoberts cried on national television, forever captured on Youtube, and we rushed Franklin for the first time.
2. February 11, 2009, Carolina 101 Duke 87. It should come as no surprise that the 2009 games will occupy the top two slots; that season was more than just a national championship winning year. With both teams ranked in the top five nationally this game received major hype, only to see Carolina drop 101 points and run Duke out of their own gym in a blowout. This was one of several points during the season in which a historic Carolina team handled a top opponent with remarkable ease, leaving fans to enjoy the feeling of thinking “this team is really freaking good.” Watching from the Aycock-Graham lounge, we rushed Franklin, but it was a relatively calm rush, indicative of the eagerness with which we awaited the future, more memorable rush we knew was coming April 6. I will always remember Shannon bravely leaving her friends and navigating the crowd to find me, so that we could experience our first Duke-Carolina game celebration together at school. This game also completed a four year reign of dominance over Duke at Cameron Indoor Stadium; watching seniors who slept in a tent for weeks soak in the reality that they were never going to see their team beat Carolina at home was glorious.
1. March 8, 2009, Carolina 79 Duke 71. This game was destined for this spot from the moment Tyler Hansbrough announced he was returning for his senior season. It was the biggest senior night in Chapel Hill since Phil Ford’s in 1978, recognizing one of college basketball’s greatest ever and a player who had no business ever making it to senior night in an era of early departures to the NBA. In many ways this felt more like a senior night for me, since we all knew it was not only Tyler’s, Danny Green’s and Bobby Frasor’s final game at the Dean Dome, but also Lawson’s and Wayne Ellington’s. This was the final time we watched the players who together represented the team we watched in person for three years as students, and that thought overshadowed a game that we never once thought was in doubt. Unlike the previous Duke game that year, I watched it with Shannon standing next to me, until a few weeks ago the only Duke game for which that was true. Like the win in Durham a few weeks earlier, this game finished in anticlimactic fashion with anxiousness for the next phase of the season to begin. But after Carolina stormed through the tournament in a way that even exceeded our hopes, they solidified their legacy as one of the greatest teams ever and cemented this game as the most memorable Duke game of my four years at UNC.