College basketball’s most storied rivalry is preparing for a first in its history: an NCAA Tournament game. Boardroom reminisces about the decades of iconic Carolina-Duke clashes that got us here.
No two men’s basketball programs are forever linked quite like Duke University and the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. Acknowledged as the biggest and best rivalry in college hoops and one of the most spirited in all of sports, the sheer number of highlights, superstars, and championship trophies this ACC rivalry has produced is staggering
And on Saturday, the Tar Heels and Blue Devils will play in the NCAA Tournament for the first time ever. In the Final Four, no less.
Is it the single most anticipated college basketball game ever? Well, it’s so big that country music star Eric Church cancelled a tour date so he could head to New Orleans and watch his beloved Heels in what could be the final game of Blue Devils head coach Mike Krzyzewski’s coaching career.
There’s never a shortage of narratives when these programs meet, but this latest iteration is just on a different level. With that in mind, Boardroom is here to take a look at the history and personalities that have animated this super-heated rivalry between schools located just nine miles apart.
The UNC-Duke Tale of The Tape
- All-time series: UNC leads 142-115
- First meeting: January 24, 1920
Final Four appearances
Duke: 5 (1991, 1992, 2001, 2010, 2015)
UNC: 6 (1957, 1982, 1993, 2005, 2009, 2017)
- Notables: Christian Laettner (3x), JJ Redick (3x), Shane Battier (2x), Grant Hill (2x), Jay Williams (2x), Zion Williamson
- Notables: Tyler Hansbrough (4x), Michael Jordan (2x), Antawn Jamison (2x), Vince Carter, Kenny Smith, Rasheed Wallace
Duke-UNC Coaching History
For 42 years, Coach K has been a mainstay in the Tobacco Road rivalry. Carolina enjoyed a legendary 36-year coaching run from the late Dean Smith, but Krzyzewski is the single most enduring figure in the rivalry.
In the 25 years since Dean Smith retired, the Heels have had four different coaches. Roy Williams won three national titles before his own retirement in 2021. He was preceded in Chapel Hill by Matt Doherty and Bill Guthridge, who each lasted just three seasons. Current head coach Hubert Davis is, like Williams, a Carolina alum — and he one-upped his predecessor by making the Final Four in his very first season at the helm.
But this weekend, and ultimately, this college basketball season, is about Coach K.
He is the most mystical figure this side of UCLA legend John Wooden and is more than worth the adorationhe’s been showered with since first announcing this was his final year. He’s now reached his 13th Final Four and will coach his 101st NCAA Tournament game Saturday. Over 100 of his players made it to at least one Final Four.
Krzyzewski is a model of head coaching excellence that goes beyond just college basketball, or basketball in general. “It’s been earned. It has not been given. It’s been earned,” longtime Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo — a Basketball Hall of Famer in his own right — said of Krzyzewski.
Memorable Games From the Duke-UNC Rivalry
The Tar Heels don’t care much for all the Blue Devil pageantry at play; in this case, the finest form of respect is disrespect, and they’d like nothing more than to crash the Coach K party just as they did on March 5 as Krzyzewski marked his final home game at Cameron Indoor Stadium. Ninety-six of Krzyzewski’s former players attended the game. UNC didn’t just score an upset victory; they did it handily by a 94-81 final score.
That got us thinking about some of the other all-time great Duke-Carolina contests. Here are a few highlights:
Feb. 28, 1981: Coach K had taken the top job at Duke nearly a year before. In his second appearance in the rivalry, he beat Dean Smith’s Heels 66-65 in overtime. Senior Gene Banks brought Cameron to a frenzy, making both the basket to send the game into OT and the ultimate game-winner. The Chapel Hill boys officially had a new adversary down the road.
Mar. 10, 1984: Duke defeated No. 1 UNC 77-75 on the road in phenom guard Michael Jordan’s last ACC conference game. MJ led a furious comeback that fell just short.
Feb. 4, 2004: In an overtime thriller, UNC’s Rashad McCants hit a game-tying three in overtime with 15 seconds to go. Duke’s Chris Duhon then proceeded to dribble the entire length of the court to make a beautiful reverse layup with little time left, securing an 86-84 win for the Blue Devils. It was then UNC head coach Roy Williams’ first game in the rivalry at the Tar Heel helm. Consider it initiation rites.
March 6, 2005: One of the beautiful things about the Duke-UNC rivalry is that their second regular season matchup is always the last conference game for both teams. In this game, the Heels had a chance to win their first conference title since 1993. Duke held a nine-point lead with three minutes to go, but Carolina turned up the defense during crunch time, and point guard Raymond Felton tapped his own free throw miss to teammate Marvin Williams, who converted a three-point play to give UNC a 75-73 lead. A three by Duke’s JJ Redick went begging and the Heels captured the ACC crown on Senior Night in the Smith Center.
No rivalry is without its legendary moments. Here are a few choice cuts throughout the years:
1995: UNC’s Jerry Stackhouse received a pass on the break and blew by Duke’s Cherokee Parks and threw down a thunderous reverse dunk on two defenders:
1995: In that same year–in that same game, actually –Duke’s Jason Capel hit a half-court running buzzer-beater to send the game into double overtime. UNC did win 102-100, but the fact two of the more memorable plays in this rivalry’s history happened in the same game speaks to the extra-special place it has in the basketball canon.
2007: Duke’s Gerald Henderson Jr attempted to make a defensive play at the rim against UNC’s All-American big man Tyler Hansbrough. Henderson’s elbow viciously struck Hansbrough’s nose, bloodying his face so badly that his pristine Heels uniform became stained with it. Years later, Hansbrough hasn’t forgotten. “I still want to get him back one day,” he told the ACC Network
2019: Duke’s Zion Williamson exploded onto the college basketball scene. And in the opening minute of his first game in the Tobacco Road rivalry, Zion’s shoe actually exploded after he went to make a move on the court. He missed the rest of the game and the teams’ second regular season meeting, but notched 31 points and 11 rebounds in the ACC Tournament against UNC to help Duke earn a No. 1 seed at March Madness that year.
Duke and North Carolina. As big a rivalry as it gets with the highest stakes the rivalry has ever seen. Potentially Coach K’s last game. A chance to play for a national championship. Whatever the result, this will be yet another legendary chapter in this tale of two bitter interstate rivals.
Watch the Final Four Saturday, with coverage starting at 6 p.m. Eastern on TBS. Duke and UNC will play roughly half an hour after Villanova and Kansas ends; approximately 8:45 p.m. ET.