Q&A: Former Duke men's basketball captain Wendell Moore Jr. muses on Tobacco Road rivalry

Wendell Moore faces up against current North Carolina leading scorer RJ Davis.
Wendell Moore faces up against current North Carolina leading scorer RJ Davis.

Wendell Moore Jr. played for the Blue Devils from 2019 to 2022. He captained Duke to the Final Four and earned the Julius Erving Award for the nation’s best small forward as a junior before he declared for the NBA Draft, where he was selected 26th overall. Among many successes in Durham, Moore is perhaps known best for his overtime buzzer-beater to seal a come-from-behind win against North Carolina in Chapel Hill in February 2020. Currently, Moore plays for the Iowa Wolves, the G-League affiliate of the NBA’s Minnesota Timberwolves. 

Last weekend, The Chronicle spoke with Moore to ask him about his memories of the Duke-North Carolina rivalry and his assessment of the Blue Devils’ chances Saturday evening against the Tar Heels. This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

The Chronicle: Walk me through your first experience of the rivalry as a North Carolina native. Was there a side you typically rooted for? What did the rivalry look like when you were younger?

Wendell Moore Jr.: I mean honestly, I’ve always been a Duke fan. That’s the side I was always on in the rivalry. Obviously I went to school at Duke, but growing up, all my friends and everybody were Carolina fans, so I kinda went opposite of them. So it’s always been Duke. Just growing up in North Carolina, that’s one of the best things that you can watch. You look forward to those two matchups every single year. Being a Duke fan, winning those games just created so much excitement. Playing in them was even more exciting.

TC: Are there any standout players you vividly remember watching?

WM: I’d probably say the most notable one is Austin Rivers’ game-winner at Carolina. I remember the year where we had Jayson Tatum and Harry Giles on that team. We ended up playing them three times that year, and we played them again in the ACC tournament — that was a huge game. I probably watched every single one since I was a kid.

TC: Speaking of that Austin Rivers game, you and him are probably in contention for top spot in Duke-UNC buzzer-beater history. How do you think your overtime winner at the Dean Dome stacks up with that and the rivalry’s best moments?

WM: It was a great moment. Just the fact that we were able to win that game like that, I mean we were down big, and then we came back and I happened to make that last shot. That was huge for me. As for Austin’s game, that’s a tough one to beat.

TC: How does the atmosphere in Chapel Hill compare to the atmosphere in Cameron?

WM: Both are super electric, but in different ways. You go into the Dean Dome and we’re the villain, so everybody in there is against us except for the fans that we bring with us. So it feels great when we go on a run and we can just silence the whole crowd, or when you win the game and they’re just silent at the end. On the other hand at Cameron, it’s crazy. It’s crazy for weeks leading up to the game. Two different atmospheres, but kind of bring the same energy.

TC: You hear coaches talk about how it’s “one game at a time.” But with that looming threat of UNC, so to speak, was the bug of that game always in the back of your brain, or not really?

WM: You start thinking about it the closer you get. That’s really one of the reasons why you want to go to Duke or Carolina, because you want to be a part of that rivalry, you want to be a part of that legendary matchup. I definitely think guys look forward to it coming in, but as you’re going through the season, obviously you’re focused on winning the game that’s in front of you.

TC: I think you, more than a lot of other Duke players, have experienced both the highest of highs and the lowest of lows that the rivalry presents. When you think back about all those games that you played, what stands out to you the most?

WM: Probably just how different each game was. Whether we win, lose or draw, it was always the same feel going into it, the intensity, the preparation. You could tell just how serious everybody was leading into the game. So just those times that we were preparing for it, and then just getting in the matchup with each of my different teams, it was just a great feeling every time.

TC: Which was your favorite game you played against them?

WM: I think I would have to say the game-winner one. Obviously, because it was my freshman year, my first time in that Duke-Carolina rivalry. Being a kid from North Carolina, you can only dream of that. The way we ended up winning that game, we were down 20 almost the whole game and went on a 15-0 run in the second half.

TC: I want to ask you about the Final Four game in New Orleans. How often do you reflect on that game, or what additional insight do you have now that you’re a couple years removed?

WM: That was a great game, just all around, both teams making huge plays on the biggest stage in the world. I thought when I hit that shot we had a really good chance of winning, then they came down and got two big buckets and they got a foul call late to help put it away. Looking back on it, I feel like we should have won that game. I feel like if we had won, we would have had a really good chance of winning the national championship against Kansas that year. 

I mean, you always look back on what would happen if this, if that, but I feel like at the end of the day it was a good moment to be a part of, so it’s definitely something I’ll remember forever. Obviously, the loss was the bad part about it, but just that whole time with that team, that’s probably one of the most fun teams I’ve been a part of.

TC: One of the really key parts of that team was Jeremy Roach, who’s still around here in Durham. He’s in his second year as a captain — what are your thoughts about how he’s led the team this season, especially as a former captain yourself?

WM: I think he’s doing great. In his second year with Scheyer taking over as head coach, it’s always gonna be a little turnaround. You’re always gonna hit your bumps along the way. I think, as a captain, he’s done a great job of controlling that team. They lose a couple games, and then he comes in, has a big game, and he just always makes the big plays for that team. I think as a captain, you have to lead by example. I think he does a great job of that. I see that with the younger guys.They’re starting to take on his swagger, his toughness that he plays with. And as a captain, that’s huge.

TC: What are your thoughts on the current makeup of the roster and how they’ll fare against UNC’s veterans?

WM: Honestly I really like our team. Carolina is always a bigger team, they always seem to have traditional two bigs. RJ Davis is playing phenomenal for them right now. All around, they’re a really good team. But for us, I love the way that we defend, we get out in transition, just how quick we are as a team. Obviously we’re a lot younger with the amount of freshmen that we play, but I feel like the chemistry on the team is really coming along, and I feel like the more games they go through the closer they’re gonna get as a team. They have to face some adversity, they have already this season early, so hopefully they can take that with them into that matchup. So I’m excited to see it.

TC: If you were in that locker room and you could tell them something to get prepared for the game, what would you say?

WM: Probably just to stay in the moment. Don’t look to whatever’s happening after the game or what play just happened because that play’s over. I think especially at a time like this, the more you can take it play-by-play and just have fun playing that game, just throw yourself into the atmosphere, the outcome just is what it is. Just give it everything you got. This is a must-win game — it’s always a must-win game when we play Carolina. That’s what it has to feel like. It has to feel like the biggest game of the year, the biggest game you’ve played. But sometimes you have to try to block out the noise and just go have fun.

TC: When you walk into those games, does it feel good to be the villain?

WM: Yeah. For sure, especially when you come out of there with a win and the whole crowd is just silent. They can’t really say anything anymore. Feeling like the villain is always a good thing.

TC: How would you describe the rivalry in one word?

WM: Legendary. Especially when I was there, we had Coach K on one side and we had Roy [Williams] on the other side. Now it’s Scheyer on one side and Hubert [Davis] on the other. That’s two legendary coaches. We have two legendary programs, two legendary blue bloods. If you play well in that game, you’ll be remembered forever as a legend at whatever school. For me it’s just legendary. It doesn’t get much better than a Duke-Carolina rivalry.

Editor’s note: This piece is one of many in The Chronicle’s 2023-24 Duke men’s basketball rivalry edition. To read more, click here.

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Andrew Long | Sports Editor

Andrew Long is a Trinity junior and sports editor of The Chronicle's 119th volume.


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