It only takes a moment for a legend to be born in the Tobacco Road rivalry. For Wendell Moore Jr., it took less than a second.
Thanks to a furious Duke comeback and a breathtaking end to regulation, college basketball’s most storied rivalry was tied at 96 with 6.6 seconds on the clock in overtime. Naturally, the ball wound up in the hands of sophomore guard and eventual ACC Player of the Year Tre Jones, whose buzzer-beating jumper had just given the Blue Devils an extra five minutes of life in Chapel Hill.
With the clock winding down and defenders collapsing onto him, Jones hoisted the potential winning shot from midrange. In what already appeared an instant classic, it only made sense that Jones should provide the storybook conclusion.
But when Jones’ jumper fell short, missing everything, a streaking Moore caught the errant shot under the hoop and put it back up and in. By the time the ball fell through the net and the freshman forward managed to turn back toward the court, the buzzer had already sounded, and Moore had already etched his name into history.
“It really just means everything to me,” Moore said after the game. “[As] a kid growing up from Charlotte watching this game for 18 years of my life and getting a chance to be a part of it with a group of guys like this, and just the things we overcame this game meant everything to us. We knew this was a big game for us and this was a game that we had to win.”
Initially, as he stood facing the court beneath the basket, Moore looked to be in disbelief, briefly pausing as if to make sure he wasn’t dreaming. Then, under the bright lights of North Carolina’s famed Dean Dome, Moore had his moment.
It took only that moment for Moore’s story to begin, but years for it to grow. All this time later—almost two years to the date—Moore will step back into the Dean Dome once again. This time, though, he’ll take the court as Duke’s captain and cornerstone. This time, those lights are shining brighter than ever.
For as grand as the start of Moore’s story was, his next chapter drew far fewer eyes. Much of his sophomore season played out in front of empty stands and cardboard cutouts, a far cry from that moment in Chapel Hill.
Heading into the new season, expectations for Moore—a preseason All-ACC selection—were considerably higher. But it was fellow sophomore Matthew Hurt, followed closely by tantalizing freshman Jalen Johnson, who made the leap for a Duke team in need of a star. Moore ended up taking a backseat in a rather surprising turn.
“Wendell [Moore] is really struggling,” said head coach Mike Krzyzewski after an early-season loss to Illinois. “God bless him. He’s just really struggling.”
After three rocky games, Moore ceded his starting spot and went scoreless in his first two games off the bench. His outlook seemed bleak until a January matchup with Boston College: with Duke down 16 early, the sophomore forward dumped a career-high 25 points on the Eagles to lift Duke to an 83-82 win, including an all-important baseline jumper with under a minute remaining.
In a season that, by and large, saw Moore struggle, his performance that night in a deafeningly quiet Cameron Indoor Stadium proved to be a beacon of light in an otherwise trying campaign.
“We’re a different team [with Moore playing well],” said acting head coach Jon Scheyer after the game. “His versatility is something that we’ve missed.”
Scheyer was right: Moore never truly got it going for a prolonged stretch in 2020-21, and neither did the Blue Devils, who ended up missing out on their first NCAA tournament in a quarter-century.
In a February matchup against the Tar Heels in Durham, Moore’s solid play gave his team a chance to tie the game on the last possession. In stark contrast to his game-winner the year prior, Moore was called for a travel as he closed in on the hoop, and North Carolina walked out of Cameron Indoor Stadium with the win.
There was no signature moment this time. Heading into his junior season, the lights shone dimmer for Moore and the Blue Devils.
Something changed for Moore between the end of his sophomore season and the beginning of his junior year. As he took the court against Kentucky for a top-10 matchup in Madison Square Garden to open the season, the same player who had failed to seize the spotlight a year earlier looked incredibly well-prepared to handle the bright lights.
Duke won that night and Moore impressed, even if his 12 points played second fiddle to breakout debuts from freshmen Trevor Keels and Paolo Banchero. Still, the difference in Moore’s on-court presence was hard to miss.
In one fell swoop, both Duke and Moore seemed to announce, “I’m back.” But for the junior captain, this had been months in the making.
“I think for me, that confidence really started in the offseason,” Moore said later in the season. “Basically, once our season ended last year, it wasn’t really down time for me. I was right back on campus with Coach Will [Stephens], our strength coach, just doing as much work as we can to prepare for this season. That’s really where the confidence comes from.”
The redefinition of Moore’s game mainly happened behind closed doors, far from the grandeur of Madison Square Garden. The hints were there throughout the preseason: heaps of praise from the coaching staff, his appointment as captain, rumblings of a dominant performance in a not-so-secret scrimmage against Villanova. All signs pointed towards a remarkably confident player.
The rumors were true, and it didn’t take Duke fans long to put their faith in Moore once again. Just days later, with Duke going up against Army in a game rife with other storylines and noise, he stole the show by posting the fifth triple-double in school history.
By the time Duke toppled top-ranked Gonzaga in Las Vegas—Moore posted 20 points, six rebounds and six assists—he had established himself as arguably the most important player on one of the best teams in the country.
“He spent seven weeks this April and May changing how he ran, how he walked,” said Krzyzewski after the win. “He busted his butt with our medical people. He’s an inch taller, he’s a better athlete, his force and how he runs has changed and he took a look at himself and said, ‘These are the things [I need to improve on], how I walk, how I run,’ and it’s worked out. But you have to be open to that, and then you have to work.”
“He's worked really hard,” Krzyzewski added. “That kid is really having a hell of a year. He’s my captain.”
After a fairytale start to the season, things got tougher for Moore and Duke in 2022 as conference play picked up. The Blue Devils fell twice in four games, dropping a pair of ACC matchups against Miami and Florida State by one possession each.
“I really think that all starts with me,” Moore said after the loss to Miami. “Tonight, I didn’t lead the guys the way I’m supposed to. Up three with 30 seconds left, I feel like, as a leader, I can’t let our team lose that game. So really I kind of put this one on me as a leader.”
If it wasn’t already clear, those losses showed once and for all that this Duke team goes as its junior captain goes. Moore couldn’t convert on the final possession of overtime against Florida State nor could he sink the go-ahead shot against the Hurricanes, but there is a reason that the ball wound up in his hands on both occasions.
And so, as his junior-year honeymoon ends and Duke’s late-season challenges begin to present themselves, Moore comes back to where it all began, the spot of his moment frozen in time.
When asked at September’s ACC Tipoff to name his favorite stadium excluding Cameron Indoor, Moore didn’t hesitate: “Non-Cameron? Dean Dome.”
Things likely won’t go down the same way they did in 2020, but then again, Moore is no longer the player he was then. This time, he won’t find the spotlight on him suddenly.
The lights are already shining.
Editor's note: This article is one of many in The Chronicle and The Daily Tar Heel's annual rivalry edition. Find the rest here.
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Jonathan Levitan is a Trinity senior and was previously sports editor of The Chronicle's 118th volume.