Posts Tagged ‘ 2009 ’

Turning the corner… On the wins over Virginia Tech, N.C. State and Georgia Tech

Every Carolina fan watching last Thursday night was thinking the exact same thought around halftime of our game against Virginia Tech: it’s happening again. For the second consecutive game, a team entered its game against the Heels on a ice cold streak of poor outside shooting and poor offense generally, only to torch us from behind the arc on the way to a modest halftime lead.

The mid-season crisis (something the 2009 team faced in an 0-2 ACC start) that we all hoped would be confined to one game was starting to feel like a toilsome trend that would last for a while, since we were merely average on offense and opposing back courts were having their way with us, the latter being one of Carolina’s most unfortunate staples.

Thankfully, the Heels altered the narrative in emphatic fashion with a dominating second half, which they followed up with two consecutive home blowouts against two other ACC opponents. Tonight’s win over Georgia Tech was predictable – the Yellow Jackets are, along with Wake Forest and Boston College, one of the worst ACC teams of recent memory – but the N.C. State win was far from it. While most Carolina fans reasonably hoped that we would send the sort of loud statement provided by a game in which we led by 30, there was significant reason to doubt, given that State was off to a good start in ACC play, we were not, and State is wildly overdue to upset us.

Both wins were of the type we grew accustomed to in 2008 and 2009: overwhelm our opponent to take a commanding lead early and then coast through the second half while surrendering a little more of that lead than fans would prefer. That’s another unfortunate Carolina staple. But this team was lacking in legitimate comparisons to the 2009 title squad, and its a significant relief to finally discover one: this team does have, on occasion, enough offense to bury a team early.

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The Most Memorable Dook Losses (of recent memory)

Tonight was one of those nights when Carolina Nation waited anxiously for about an hour, watching the clock tick down far too slowly and spreading the word electronically that there was a chance Dook was about to go down. In  my case, I was following the game sparingly on my phone, so as to participate in the joy but refrain from jinxing it. There are those that disagree, but I’ve long thought that hatred of Dook is one of the defining traits of the most ardent Tar Heels, and that the celebration of their losses is one of our most sacred rituals.

The rivalry needs no further feeding of the fire – both teams are and will forever be among college basketball’s top tier, the only rivalry in college basketball that boasts of that caliber of competition. Though its origin lies in past competitive match-ups of top ranked teams, it is no longer sustained by those individual games, but rather by the larger historical comparison of each program’s collective record, and the mutual dislike based both on that comparison and on the lasting cultural clash between relocated Yankees and proud Southerners. It is for this reason that Dook’s loss is always our gain, explaining why I was united in celebration through social media when Temple finally completed their upset tonight.

As such, tonight seemed like a good occasion for a list of my most memorable Dook losses. I haven’t posted in a while, and tonight’s loss was the most significant event of the past two weeks for Carolina fans. A few honorable mentions to start: the last second 2008 loss to Pitt that I watched at home with my dad, yelling and waking my mom at the last second Pitt three; returning from snow football in 2010 to learn that Georgetown had beaten Dook handily; watching Dook lose to Maryland that year to stumble into a share of the ACC title in one of the conference’s worst seasons.

10) March 8, 2007 to N.C. State: A bad loss for a self-destructing Dook team at the hands of a young Wolfpack team, in the ACC tournament, Coach K’s most friendly confines. The game wrapped up during the minutes before a Campus Crusade meeting as most of the guys excitedly huddled around phones.

9) February 26, 2011 to Virginia Tech: The Hokie seniors deserved this signature win, especially since they got mistreated by the Selection Committee again two weeks later. It also paved the way for the Heels to clinch the ACC regular season title outright with a win against Dook in the season’s final game.

8) March 22, 2008 to West Virginia: A year after losing in the first round, Dook stumbled in the second. They would fall in the third the following season, allowing perfectly for Carolina fans to mock their marginal improvements. We made similar improvements over the same span: Elite Eight to Final Four to National Champion.

7) March 26, 2009 to Villanova: We all had a feeling that Carolina was headed for a national title, and it was made even more sweet as Duke reached what seemed to be a bottoming-out. Talk of Dook’s elite status falling was already prevalent after their loss the previous season, and this marked their fifth consecutive loss before the Elite Eight (we went four out of five years over the same span). And of course, a week after Villanova blew out Dook, we blew out Villanova in the Final Four.

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On the two losses and Saturday morning college basketball

Thanksgiving break and then a week-long work trip to Arizona caused an extended hiatus from the blog, one that unfortunately coincided with a nationally relevant up-and-down stretch for the Heels. It was never my goal to provide timely breakdowns of game-by-game happenings (that should be left to the ESPN folks), so the break can partly be attributed to a lack of urgency on my part. There wasn’t a whole lot new to say, especially after the Kentucky loss. But as my goal is to chronicle my experience of Carolina basketball, there were some observations that I would have liked to publish a while ago, and will just now get to. Here goes:

UNLV 90, UNC 80

Those rare completely unforeseen losses such as the one we took to UNLV frustrate Carolina fans in a way that exemplifies how spoiled we are as fans. Psychologically preparing for most games with the comfortable assurance of victory is a luxury not afforded to most programs, yet when one of those allegedly assured victories ends up as a loss, the disappointment for us is even more profound. I was certainly guilty of this: I entered the weekend looking forward to the upcoming games as holiday family entertainment, obviously leading to a feeling of being cheated during the disaster against UNLV.

Rather than understanding that early season road losses to good but not elite teams remain a part of college basketball even in this new era, our immediate impulse is to search for explanations. In my case, it was to identify chronic problems with the team indicating that we cannot possibly be as good as our expectations; for those less negative than me it was to find comparisons between Saturday’s loss and the surprising setbacks experienced by the 2005 and 2009 teams.

Yet after the frustration settles, reality is somewhere in between. The loss differs from the one to Santa Clara in 2005 in that there wasn’t a significant starter on the bench suspended, and it differs from the one in 2009 to BC in that it didn’t come at the hands of a team with NBA talent playing at their best on offense. Not to mention the fact that the 2009 team made that loss a close game, while against UNLV we lied down and took punches right until the end.

Yet that does not mean there is a chronic problem that diminishes the ultra-high expectations for this team, nor even that should indicate that we are not the best team in the country. This team is nowhere near the level of 2009’s, but since that 2009 team is one of the best in the history of the sport, it doesn’t have to be. Much of this loss can be blamed on the differences in style between 2012 and 2009 rather than differences in quality. Though our most recent win against Evansville suggests potential for otherwise, this version of Carolina is not one to blow teams out of the gym with its scoring. We hang on to victories with our defense rather than dare teams to outscore us, and when the defense lapses, we aren’t often going to score our way out of trouble. Late last season, however, the defense – and clutch late game play – was there more often than not, and we remained a tough team to beat.

The point here is that this team is far more susceptible to losses like this than 2009 Carolina ever was, and even 2009 Carolina lost three regular season games. We’ve come back down to earth a little bit, but are nonetheless one of the best teams in the country. The main lesson may end up being that there is more than one route to a national championship. 2005 and 2009 took the team of destiny, no one is going to beat us when it counts route; 2012 doesn’t have that option – we lack the offensive firepower to control our own destiny, and a hot shooting Kentucky team will beat us in March.

But maybe Kentucky will be cold. Carolina hasn’t yet experienced this under Roy, but as Florida learned in 2006 and Duke in 2010, one doesn’t have to be the team of destiny to a win a national title.

Kentucky 73, UNC 72

This was one of the stranger Carolina viewing experiences of my life, and especially after the nature of the game, it will certainly be one of the more lasting. After finishing up a long and fast-paced week in Arizona for ALEC’s large winter meeting, I went out with coworkers to celebrate Friday night, returned to my hotel room and went to bed a little after 2:00, woke up around 9:00, packed my stuff, and sat down to watch the game in my hotel room at 10:00 in the morning. A brief walk through the lobby discovered that all of the televisions there were showing college football. I couldn’t believe that people in the western half of the U.S. do this every weekend.

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Carolina’s place in a new era of college basketball

In his eight year tenure as the head coach at North Carolina, Roy Williams has essentially coached three distinct basketball teams. Those teams are roughly (though not that roughly) defined as the groups of players from 2003-2005, from 2005-2009, and from 2009-2012. In the current state of college basketball, and especially in our case since the first two of those eras concluded after mass NBA departures from National Championship teams, there isn’t a whole lot of continuous overlap as there used to be: only David Noel, Rayshawn Terry,  Marcus Ginyard, Deon Thompson, and Ed Davis played significant roles on teams in separate groups.

As noted above, Roy is 2-2 thus far winning national titles with his teams, and Carolina fans who lived through Dean Smith going 2-for-a whole bunch realize how fortunate we are to have experienced the last seven years. It is partly a reflection of this new state of the sport; there are fewer really good teams each year, so the programs such as North Carolina that consistently field really good teams have a better shot. That we fell short in a loaded 2008 Final Four field before cruising to a relatively easy title a year later demonstrates this point clearly.

But it in no way devalues the accomplishments of Roy’s squads; to win a national title you are only asked to be the best team in a given year, and there is no question that Roy has done a better job than anyone in the country fielding title-competitive teams consistently. Other powerhouse programs, such as Duke and UCLA, have faltered in this respect. More importantly, with the easier path comes far greater expectations, and this may actually be the defining characteristic of this new era of college basketball.

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The most anticipated seasons in (my) North Carolina basketball history

The tipping point that inspired me to break my off-season hiatus came this week when the blog Rush the Court (of which I am not a reader, credit Twitter for the referral) published their season preview for UNC and called this season “the most anticipated season in North Carolina basketball history.” It was not a subtle remark made mid-sentence either, but a bold statement appearing as the first line of the story.

It is remarks like these that remind me why I would not have enjoyed a career in sports journalism. Designed purely to serve as a hype-generating, cleverly dramatic opener, the statement is at least unnecessary. Worse, though, is that it is unequivocally and colossally untrue. It takes a blindly superficial attempt at hype (so often typical of sports media) and a shockingly short memory to make such a ridiculous statement in the fall of 2012, only three years removed from the 2009 basketball season.

Granted, the author of the post claims that this season tops 2009. He is wildly incorrect, and that he even attempts the claim shows that his historical perspective of Carolina basketball is seriously lacking. In truth, for a program accustomed to preseason #1 rankings – and to being unfairly loaded with talent – 2012 is closer to the norm than it is to the historically anomalous 2009 season, which even for Carolina presented an unprecedented challenge of hype.

Only in 2009 did four players, rather than three, spurn the NBA, three of whom declared before withdrawing and all of whom were rising juniors or seniors. Far more importantly, since admittedly Harrison Barnes’ decision to return is the most bizarre of the lot, only in 2009 had the Heels been a #1 seed with essentially the same team two years running. In both tournaments we fell short in dramatic losses, but progressed to the Final Four in 2008, one round farther than in 2007. Only in 2009 did we return one of the greatest players in conference history and one of the most beloved among Carolina fans, and only in 2009 were all of our core players juniors and seniors that we had been watching perform at a historically high level for two full seasons, becoming highly invested them in ways that we haven’t yet, purely as a function of time, with Barnes and his teammates.

In his autobiography, Roy Williams speaks of persistent sleepless nights leading up to the 2009 season. If after 2012, it is Ohio State or Kentucky cutting down the nets, Carolina will have failed, no doubt, but people will understand. In 2009, that was certainly not the case; it would have been incomprehensible for anyone but the Heels to win, especially after early season thrashings of Notre Dame and Michigan State. Even more difficult personally for Roy was his attachment to the team, and particularly to Hansbrough, that made the prospect of not winning a title agonizing to a degree that falling short this year could not possibly attain.

It seems odd to make this argument at the present time – it would be more fun to agree with the author, given that it is 2012, not 2009. But I was there as a student, and perhaps for that reason his error struck a nerve. But alas, in honor of the approaching arrival of the 2012 season, one that is highly anticipated for a team that, while not 2009, could be historically good and does seem to have a uniquely strong connection to the students and fans: an actual ranking of the most anticipated seasons in my short lifetime of Carolina basketball history.

1) 2008-2009: As mentioned above, no other season comes close. We had never experienced that level of anticipation before, and only perfectly unusual circumstances would allow for it again.

2) 2004-2005: Carolina fans should be thankful that Roy is two for two in delivering national championships during the years in which we were expected to win. Dean Smith was one for a whole bunch of seasons, not because of poor coaching, but because that is often the reality of college basketball (in 1982 Carolina was the preseason favorite, but in 1993 we began the year #7 and were not ranked #1 until early March). The 2005 team was not only expected to contend for the title, but was expected to redeem at last Carolina basketball from the abyss of the previous six seasons. That journey was best exemplified by a senior class that went 8-20 as freshmen and a trio of juniors that represented one of the most heralded recruiting classes in program history. Both groups weathered the storm of initial underachievement and the firing of Matt Doherty, and even Roy Williams at the time brought his additional pressure of having never won a national title. We are fortunate that this squad got the job done, as it set us on course for the most successful five season stretch in program history, and having not won a national title in over a decade, it was a long anticipated event.

3) 2011-2012: It doesn’t take long to arrive at the present season, which, for all of its contrast to 2009, is itself an anomaly, especially for the current state of college basketball. It was such a shock that this team stayed together without NBA defection that we forget how young this team is; we haven’t yet had time to fully invest ourselves as fans in Harrison Barnes and Kendall Marshall, especially in the case of Barnes, from whom many of us had resolved not to expect more than one season. In any case, the gap between our talent and the rest of the country, excepting Kentucky, may be the largest it has ever been. This team, like 2005, hopes to culminate the escape of its own abyss (2009-2010 and early 2010-2011), and like 2009, returns after a dramatic near miss last season. Unique to this year’s squad is the special connection these players seem to have to each other; I cannot remember another core group of players who were unanimous in the level of joy this team has for playing basketball in Chapel Hill. Capping off the anticipation is that a title this season would be our third in eight seasons, placing Roy Williams’ tenure rightfully at the pinnacle of the sport as its most recent dynasty.

4) 2002-2003: This season did not end as happily as the first two, but there is no questioning its spot on the list nonetheless. Carolina fans had toiled through an embarrassing 8-20 season the year before, and resorted to following intently the developing stories of the incoming recruiting class, especially local South Carolina superstar Ray Felton. As they were one of college basketball history’s most highly regarded classes, and given our program’s prolonged struggle, Felton, Sean May and Rashad McCants were stamped as nothing short of saviors before they set foot on campus. Less than a month into the season the three freshmen led us to an upset of Roy’s highly ranked Kansas team, and Carolina fans were relieved to again be in the national spotlight. Stumbling down the stretch led to the firing of Matt Doherty, but early on at least this season was anticipated at a historic level.

5) 1997-1998: This year’s team contends with 1982 and 2009 as one of Carolina’s most talented groups, though unfortunately it would eventually fall short in the Final Four for the second season in a row. Nonetheless, they returned nearly everyone from that first Final Four team, including juniors Antawn Jamison and Vince Carter, both of whom would be top-five NBA selections after the season. They were deep with NBA talent for a supporting cast, and they were guided by one of college basketball’s all-time assist leaders, Ed Cota. Additionally, this season was Bill Guthridge’s first as the replacement for Dean Smith, the first coaching change for the program in nearly 40 years. I can remember as a ten year old child thinking that my time had finally come to experience a national title I would remember, and wondering if my generation was somehow cursed when it ended. That level of anticipation earns this season the final spot on the list.

The Roy Williams model for building national champions: strategy or luck?

Thanks to a tip from Shannon, I read this post from a UNC recruiting blogger offering his interpretation of Carolina’s ability to keep so many highly talented players in school. It’s a nice theory: Carolina and Duke regularly pass on the guys who would turn pro after one season in favor of high-character players that are committed to staying and winning, capitalizing on their status to be “selective about skill and personality.”

There are elements of this that are absolutely true. Character is a major factor in Roy’s recruitment of players, and even a casual college basketball fan recognizes a fundamental difference between his model and that of John Calipari at Kentucky. It’s also true that keeping players in school as been the most critical component of college basketball success over the last decade, and Carolina’s two titles during that span – and its set up for a third next season – especially demonstrate this trend.

But to suggest intentionality by Roy to become the anti-Calipari, the coach who actively seeks players who will stay three years in order to win a title when they do, is an idealistic and inaccurate picture of Carolina basketball. As much as we want to think otherwise, Roy’s players – though they may not have a singular focus on getting to the NBA as soon as possible – do have it as their end goal, and a quick look at our most recent NBA prospects immediately dismisses this blogger’s theory. It is nonsense to derive theories of this nature from the decisions of thirteen individuals, and that is the most problematic aspect of his argument: the history of Carolina basketball, and his interpretation if it, would have to be radically different if merely two or three of these players had made alternative decisions. And it very nearly happened:

Marvin Williams and Brandan Wright: Two of the top recruits in the country who both turned pro after one season.

Ed Davis: Returned for his sophomore season despite establishing himself as an early pick, but only one more season was enough to convince him he would rather be in the NBA.

Sean May, Rashad McCants, and Raymond Felton: It is difficult to know for certain how close these three were to leaving after 2004, if at all, but it is certainly true that their decision to return was a calculated benefit from a draft stock perspective even had we not won the 2005 title, after which all three became lottery picks.

Tyler Hansbrough: He is one of two players on this list that fits the blogger’s theory, but for that reason it should be cautioned that his extremely exceptional case is exactly that: extremely exceptional, even strictly within the realm of Carolina basketball.

Ty Lawson, Wayne Ellington, and Danny Green: The exception of Hansbrough is contrasted with the decisions of his teammates and fellow national champions. The textual critic in me reads the statements of each player following their decision to withdraw from the draft in 2008 and notices that all three reference the negative results of testing their draft stock as their reason for staying. Danny Green stayed and cemented his legacy as one of my favorite Tar Heels ever (I am looking now at his jersey hanging on my wall). But the fact remains that these three returned only because their stock wasn’t where it needed to be to justify the jump, and in doing so drastically changed the course of college basketball history. The ability for a blogger to even speculate on this suggested recruiting strategy of Roy Williams teetered on the difficult decisions of three individuals who declared for the draft and subsequently withdrew; had they chosen the alternative, we are not having this conversation.

Harrison Barnes, John Henson, and Tyler Zeller: In this team there may be a general exception; it certainly appears that the desire to win was a bigger factor for these three than with past groups, but that itself does not reveal a recruiting strategy. Only Barnes does not have the potential for substantial gain by staying, and we will never know what Henson, and in turn Barnes, would have decided had John been a projected top five pick as he was coming out of high school. Thankfully, that is irrelevant, and I will ruminate on this special group in a later post.

Roy recruited Barnes so heavily no doubt because he thought there was a chance he would stay. But he took a risk there nonetheless, just as he did, and lost, with Wright, Davis, and Williams. UNC recruits from among the top players in the country, all of whom want to play in the NBA, and actually to adjust our strategy as this blogger suggests would come at our expense. That the 2005, 2009, and 2012 teams exist as they do reflect a perfect storm of varying motivations, but in most cases a calculated assessment of NBA draft stock that came back negative was a significant factor in a player’s decision to return.

The point here is not that Carolina players do not want to stay in school and win – many others would have turned pro in the same circumstances, so there is no questioning that a desire to win and be a part of a great tradition plays a role in keeping players in school. The point is that it isn’t always the determining factor, certainly not often enough to establish a trend, and that Roy has benefited from, among other factors, a little bit of luck.

Remembering those eight Carolina-Duke games while I was a student

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.