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'Kind of nuts': In-state Duke students prepare for Duke-UNC Final Four showdown

Junior Wendell Moore Jr. is a Charlotte native himself and has grown up in the middle of the Tobacco Road rivalry.
Junior Wendell Moore Jr. is a Charlotte native himself and has grown up in the middle of the Tobacco Road rivalry.

In this state, you just cannot hide from it.

Saturday will feature this season's third installment of Duke against North Carolina, but this time around, things are just a tiny bit different. Check that, try a whole lot different.

For the first time ever, the two will face off in the NCAA tournament, with the elusive date coming in the Final Four. As exciting a matchup Kansas-Villanova will be, it takes a rightful backseat to what is arguably the most anticipated national semifinal ever.

“It’s kind of nuts that this is happening,” said Jon Carter, a Pratt junior and Durham native. 

For Duke students who grew up right here in North Carolina, the stakes might be even higher. Many applied to both schools, and many have childhood friends on the other side. 

Now, it all comes to a head in New Orleans, with a national championship in sight.

“The dynamic growing up, going through elementary school and middle school, all of that, everybody is a fan of one thing,” said Carter, who graduated from North Carolina School of Science and Math. 

Carter’s mother attended North Carolina for medical school, so he was no stranger to the feisty dynamics of this rivalry growing up. It could be a complete stranger, a close friend, a family member or in one case, a teacher, that starts some classic banter—albeit with what Carter depicts as an air of respect for the other side. 

It just comes with the territory.

“One of my teachers in high school, who’s a big UNC dude, he never said Duke itself, he would say, ‘That school down the road,’. So it’s just a way of life,” Carter said.

Trinity senior Mikayla Mead, a Charlotte resident since she was five, actually leaned towards the Tar Heels growing up. It came as a byproduct of North Carolina being the state school and most of her friends in high school being Chapel Hill fans.

That all changed once she started on campus.

“The only time, in my personal life, it became a thing was when I decided to go to Duke and I kind of thought I was gonna go to UNC my whole life,” Mead said. “I was like, ‘Wait, I have to kind of switch my alliance here.’”

Carter and Mead both admitted that with friends over in Chapel Hill, the topic of conversation this week has so far avoided the impending clash. Obviously, friends are friends, but that goes to show how stressful this matchup figures to be—for both groups. Staying off the subject might be the best way to ensure that the quips do not get too intense.

Take the biannual regular season contests, for example. It is obviously an enormous sporting event for the state every time, but it’s just a regular-season game, right? 

Wrong. Mead learned that the hard way her freshman year.

“One time when UNC beat us, one of my friends posted something about UNC beating Duke and I remember actually getting really upset. This is like my best friend, why is she against me?”

That’s not even the craziest story that Mead had to offer. Duke-North Carolina certainly can impact friendships, but what about your relationship with a significant other. In these parts, nothing is off the table. 

“My roommate, her boyfriend goes to UNC,” she said. “So they’re really scared to watch the game together, she’s gonna get really upset if he’s cheering on UNC, because they care so much. It can kind of impact relationships.”

If you wanted any proof of how deeply ingrained this rivalry is, that might be exhibit A, B and C. Where else could a basketball game cause that sort of strife? 

As for Trinity sophomore Nathan Ostrowski, the primary emotion is gratitude. The first meeting between the two was in 1920, back when Duke was still Trinity College, so a battle with this sort of backdrop and circumstances has been a long time coming.

“I think everything in a 10-mile radius is going to erupt,” Ostrowski said. “I feel uniquely lucky to be here for that.”

Ostrowski, who is a Davidson native and also attended NCSSM, said roughly half of his classmates now go to North Carolina. But unlike Carter and Mead, the junior has engaged in a bit of ribbing with his Chapel Hill counterparts in the run-up to Saturday. For some, it is just too difficult to resist.

“They feel like their team is on a hot streak, and I know that Duke is on a hot streak,” Ostrowski said. “That trash talk is going to fly like crazy Saturday night.

“But there’s a reason we call them a wine and cheese crowd. Nobody goes harder for our team than Duke, and I know the players feel that support and intensity, even outside Cameron. I think there’s no bigger sign for that than the line for tickets when the NOLA lottery happened. I sent pics of that to a couple of my UNC friends and said, ‘These are what real fans look like.'"

Saturday figures to be a spectacle, and proof that the state of North Carolina is the “center of the college basketball universe.” And don’t just take my word for it. Governor Roy Cooper, a Chapel Hill alum, said so himself in a Thursday proclamation, stating that, “the stakes are high on Saturday and fans across the nation will get a firsthand look at two programs that have for decades competed fiercely and divided the loyalty of family and friends, but made our state proud.” 

Don’t forget about the stakes on the court either. For Mike Krzyzewski, it will mark a chance to reach his 10th national title game. For Hubert Davis, a chance to reach his first, in his debut season as a head coach. For the players on each team, a chance to etch their name into the lore of this iconic rivalry, and to capture a 2-1 edge on the season on the other.

But for those Duke students that grew up in North Carolina, Saturday presents another chance. A chance at some in-state bragging rights.

Bragging rights that will stand the test of time, thanks to a previously unfathomable outcome becoming a stark reality. 

“There’s no way to put that into words. It’s hard to even wrap my head around,” Ostrowski said.


Max Rego

Max Rego is a Trinity junior and sports managing editor for The Chronicle's 117th volume.

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