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How Duke vs. North Carolina has captivated us both on and off the court

Duke and North Carolina kneeling at midcourt prior to their 2015 matchup, honoring legendary Tar Heel head coach Dean Smith less than two weeks after his death.
Duke and North Carolina kneeling at midcourt prior to their 2015 matchup, honoring legendary Tar Heel head coach Dean Smith less than two weeks after his death.

You can have Yankees vs. Red Sox, Lakers vs. Celtics or Alabama vs. Auburn. I will take Duke vs. North Carolina and be more than satisfied with my choice.

Over the years, the greatest rivalry in college basketball has delivered countless times with thrilling finishes, clutch performances and season-altering outcomes. Just last month, the Blue Devils pulled off a remarkable comeback in the waning minutes to steal a victory against North Carolina in Chapel Hill. It was arguably the most exciting finish in the 100-year history of the rivalry, with Tre Jones and Wendell Moore Jr. etching their names into Duke lore with consecutive buzzer beaters.

Any college basketball fan can reminisce about the various times that this rivalry made everyone stop what they were doing and find a television. In 1981, Gene Banks stunned the Tar Heels in Mike Krzyzewski’s first season at Duke. In 1998, Krzyzewski secured his 500th career win by virtue of a second-half comeback led by then-freshman Elton Brand. In 2012, Austin Rivers silenced a hostile North Carolina crowd with a gutsy buzzer beater over the outstretched arm of seven-footer Tyler Zeller. In last season's ACC tournament, Zion Williamson got revenge on the Tar Heels for the infamous “shoe game", scoring the winning basket with 30.3 seconds remaining en route to the Blue Devils' 21st ACC tournament title.

However, some things from this rivalry go slightly unnoticed in the heat of the battle between the two blue bloods. While so many memorable moments have taken place on the court, there have also been multiple instances off the hardwood that display what Duke vs. North Carolina is all about. The fierce competitiveness coupled with clear mutual respect between the two programs has made this rivalry the pinnacle of the college basketball world. Here are a few memorable off-court moments that showcase how both universities and teams have been connected over the years.

Dean Smith recommends Krzyzewski for Team USA

After the utter debacle that was the 2004 Summer Olympics under head coach Larry Brown, USA Basketball needed a new leader and a new direction. Multiple candidates were considered for the head coaching position, but an endorsement made by Dean Smith went a long way toward determining who would be in charge of steering the national team in the right direction for 2008 and beyond.

When asked about who should lead Team USA by new director Jerry Colangelo in 2005, Smith, who himself coached the 1976 Olympic team, stated that Krzyzewski was the only man for the job in terms of college coaches. This ringing approval of Krzyzewski’s ability to succeed with the best players in the world on a global stage showed the respect Smith had for Krzyzewski. Representing the United States in the Olympics was a major accomplishment for Krzyzewski when one considers his Army background, and Smith’s support helped seal the deal for Duke’s head man to take the reins for USA Basketball. 

Eve Carson is remembered in 2008

On a much more somber note, tragedy has also brought these two programs together. In March of 2008, utter tragedy struck North Carolina, as student body president Eve Carson was senselessly murdered. Shockwaves were sent throughout the university and the Chapel Hill community, as Carson was a model student dedicated to helping others through community service. Three days after the tragedy, Duke and North Carolina faced off in Cameron Indoor Stadium. 

Following Carson’s death, Krzyzewski reached out to the North Carolina basketball office regarding a potential moment of silence before the game. With the players and coaches lining up at the foul line on both sides, a short moment of silence took place. Those in the student section opted to wear light blue ribbons as a tribute to Carson, showing how such an immense tragedy can break the barriers between those on opposite sides.

Both teams honor Dean Smith after his passing in 2015

For 36 years, Dean Smith revolutionized college basketball and won at an astounding rate in Chapel Hill. Smith secured two national championships with the Tar Heels and was revered for running a program that stressed graduation rates and for taking major strides to promote racial equality in both college basketball and the state of North Carolina. 

Despite initially being bitter rivals during the 1980s, Krzyzewski and Smith eventually became good friends that understood the motivations of each other. In 2015, Smith passed away after a lengthy battle with dementia. Just eleven days later, Duke and North Carolina faced off in Cameron Indoor Stadium in a matchup with major ACC and national implications. 

However, basketball took a backseat for a short period. Before tip-off, the coaching staffs and players from each side embraced and knelt at midcourt in a moment of silence to honor Smith and his legacy. It was a touching and necessary tribute considering the impact that Smith had on the rivalry.

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