Recovering from last week’s loss: a look back at Carolina’s 2005 comeback win against Duke

In the hour after our stunning loss to Duke last week, my thoughts turned briefly from somber shock to what I would possibly write on the game here. Balancing my desire to preserve some memory of the event – in case we do proceed to win a national title this season – with my desire to avoid discussing or examining it in any way, I thought about titling a blank post simply “No Comment.” A week and two wins later, it isn’t remotely surprising that disappointment over the loss remains strong. I knew that night that you never fully recover when, having a won a game that would fit into the permanent record of an epic rivalry, that game abruptly becomes an instant classic loss. At the least, it will take a win at Cameron or a national title to dull the frustration.

Most of the frustration centers on how radically the narrative of this college basketball season changed in the course of a two minute long sequence of unfortunately flukish events. If any one of no less than ten unlikely occurrences – some our error, some the refs’ error and some bad luck –  goes the other way, we win the game. Win that game, and there are a number of tectonic shifts in the college basketball landscape. Conversation on the game would remember the way that we survived a hot-shooting Duke team at their best to lead after the first half and asserted ourselves as the far superior team in the second. We would be ranked no lower than #4 and probably #3 in the polls, with a solid grip on the ACC regular season title and a #1 seed in the NCAA tournament. Kentucky and Syracuse would be looking over their shoulder at our looming shadow as the best team in the country finally getting into gear. Tyler Zeller would have nearly clinched the ACC Player of the Year Award, and Harrison Barnes would have a strong argument himself after taking over the game in the second half.

Conventional wisdom scorns the ‘what if’ talk, but in reality there is little reason to avoid it. It doesn’t diminish their win in any way, but strictly for the purpose of evaluating our prospects for the rest of the season, it absolutely matters that after 38 minutes we were, as we expected, significantly better than Duke. With a one-game sample size and the fact that basketball depends so much on factors outside of the players’ control, far too little had to change to completely reorient all of the conclusions drawn based on the outcome of the game. There are two lessons there, one being to use caution in drawing conclusions based exclusively on who is ahead at the end of a mid-season game. The other is to treasure that in basketball, the nature and rules of the game are designed to produce outcomes reflective of the way the game was played, and that what happened last Wednesday happens very infrequently. If basketball crazy North Carolinians need solace, just think: our favorite sport could be soccer.

While paying ‘what if’ does offer limited if not enduring catharsis, remembering the cumulative history of the Duke v. Carolina rivalry offers relief that is much more potent. Having shared all of the thoughts on last week’s loss that I care to submit for memory, I will now share what proved to be my most effective comfort the day after. I’ve never been much into YouTube, but oh how I was thankful for it on Thursday. A quick search found this video, which I watched five or six times.

Aside from the general greatness of a memorable Carolina victory of Duke, there are two primary reasons that this game is appropriate for the occasion. The first is obvious: watch the video, and you will realize that on this particular day in history, Duke fans likely produced their own litany of strange occurrences, each of which was critically necessary to give Carolina a chance to win after trailing by nine with three minutes left. It is important to remember the extent to which this game was over after the selfishly arrogant Lee Melchioni (don’t even care if I spelled his name right, absolutely one of my least favorite Dukies ever) hit a three to put them up nine. I was sulking, my Uncle David briefly left his seat to pace in frustration – we were about to lose to Duke again, and we were still in the midst of the hard road back from the 8-20 debacle.

But then amazing happened: two offensive rebounds produced a tip-in basket to cut the lead to seven; on our next possession, a tough out-of-bounds call allows us to retain possession after a missed shot, and a tough foul call sends Marvin Williams to the line to cut it to five; DeMarcus Nelson misses the front end of a one-and-one; another offensive rebound allows Sean May to recover and score a three-point play, cutting the lead to two; Melchioni misses a wide open three from the same spot where he sank one minutes earlier; Duke gets the offensive rebound, and then J.J. REDICK misses a wide open three (wide doesn’t even capture it, he might as well have been in shoot-around, where he once made 40-something in a row); Ray Felton misses a shot and the ball goes out-of-bounds to Duke; David Noel miraculously pokes the ball out of Sean Dockery’s control to cause a steal and give us another chance; Felton is fouled, makes the first but misses the second; Marvin Williams gets yet another offensive rebound, sinks a shot, gets fouled and makes the free-throw to put us up by two, the end of an 11-0 run over 2:50. Redick got lost on a screen and found an open look to win the game, but he missed again, and we won the game, the ACC title, a #1 seed, and three weeks later the national title to emphatically lift ourselves from the misery of the past three seasons.

That game was different than the loss last week; it wasn’t quite as flukish, as the defining moments were all offensive rebounds that we earned with toughness. Watching the video will serve as a reminder of how tough Sean May was as a rebounder; we won that game because he had 24 boards, including every offensive rebound we needed from him in the closing minutes. But in many ways the game is similar to last week’s, and I’m sure Duke fans saw it much as we see last week’s game. The game was the beginning of what we now know are the new glory days, and it immediately followed what can be described as nothing other than a miserable abyss; no stretch of Carolina basketball history has been as great as 2005-2009. Yet it was almost so different.

Last week’s loss will play on highlight reels forever, and it will always count as something special for Duke. It hurts now for that reason, but that illustrates an important facet of the Duke v. Carolina rivalry: fans never truly live in the present. Duke fans can celebrate obnoxiously now, just as I can wallow by reliving a past memory that incredibly is now seven years past. Fairly soon, last week’s loss will fade into the cumulative history of the rivalry and become just another game in a long running series. I’m thankful for that aspect of rivalries, especially since in that series, we are always going to be on top.

** As I referenced in the post, I was fortunate enough to be in attendance for the March 6, 2005 game as a junior in high school. The game became what is still one of my favorite Dean Dome moments, even after four years of them in college, and it was without question my first truly great experience of Carolina basketball. As you can hear in the video, Marvin Williams’ basket to give us the lead produced one of the loudest moments I’ve ever heard in the building, and I have never stayed longer in my seat after the end of a game. It was a full 45 minutes later when the team finally concluded cutting down the nets, after Roy had successfully chased the students and photographers off the court after the rushing. I told anyone who would listen the complete story the next week at school. It is still one of the greatest days there were to be a Tar Heel.

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