Sheltered from the few inches of snow that had all but shut down Chapel Hill, James Michael McAdoo and Luke Davis stood on the court of an empty Dean Smith Center.
It was Feb. 12, 2014, and in routine fashion, the duo — dressed in pregame warmups — shot around, loosening up before their North Carolina team got set to take on Duke a few hours later. Except the only game McAdoo and Davis ended up playing that night was … H.O.R.S.E.?
About three hours prior to the 9 p.m. tip-off, it was officially announced: the contest was postponed because “Duke’s bus is not able to get to their campus to pick up the team,” according to UNC Athletic Director Bubba Cunningham.
What happened eight days later, though, went down in history. The Tar Heels knocked off the Blue Devils, winning 74-66 against No. 5 Duke, just the eighth time in the rivalry's history that an unranked UNC beat Duke.
“That’s probably the loudest, craziest environment I’ve been in — home or away,” then-sophomore guard Marcus Paige said after his 13-point performance.
The victory marked the first time an unranked UNC had beaten Duke since senior night of former head coach Matt Doherty’s final year in 2003. The other years that the Tar Heels accomplished the feat were 1954, 1959, 1965 (twice) and 1990 (twice).
So, how did it all fall into place six years ago for a group that started at No. 12 in the AP poll, but saw its season nearly derailed as it lost four of its first five ACC games?
“This team was unranked by the polls, but had plenty of talent,” said Adam Lucas, a columnist for GoHeels.com. “You look at that roster on paper and you think, ‘Oh, this team’s got a chance.’”
Led by Paige, who eventually etched his name into Tar Heel lore, McAdoo and 2016 first-team All-American Brice Johnson, UNC had the firepower to compete in most of its games.
Then, there was the snow.
With many UNC faithfuls expected not to show on the original game day, Cunningham announced hours before the game’s postponement: “Seats that go unused by season ticket holders will be filled by students.” There was a perception by some that Duke didn’t want to play in the uber-hostile environment that an arena filled with 20,000-plus students would create.
Fans, players — and even head coach Roy Williams — were irked.
“The frustrating thing is that you go through all the junk on the game day and the stress and everything and then you don’t get to play,” Williams said prior to the rescheduled game. “So, you’ve got to do it twice for one game. That’s not fair.”
Eight days later, it was time to release that frustration.
The Tar Heels dug themselves out of a seven-point halftime deficit, and rode the energy of a crowd that had bottled up more than a week’s worth of anticipation along with Paige’s second-half heroics — he scored nine of his 13 in the final 5:31 — to a victory.
“That’s one of the loudest games there’s ever been at the Smith Center,” said Lucas, describing the crowd that rushed the court after the contest as “Jump Around” blared through the Dean Dome speakers.
By sliding past its rival, UNC grabbed its eighth-consecutive win and its 19th of the season. North Carolina ultimately turned what could’ve been a disastrous year into a 24-win campaign in which the program made an appearance in the NCAA Tournament’s Round of 32.
Nearly six years later, the obvious question comes to mind: Can it happen again? Can this year’s Tar Heels (10-11, 3-7 ACC) use a similar recipe for success when the No. 7 Blue Devils (19-3, 9-2 ACC) come to town Saturday?
“Nationally, people say this is going to be a walk-over,” Lucas said. “I do not think it will be that way, and I don’t think anybody in that (UNC) locker room thinks in any way that’s the case.”
UNC has won two straight games, and star first-year guard Cole Anthony is back in the lineup. But still, the Tar Heels haven’t always looked great, even with Anthony in the mix this year.
This group will have to channel an inner motivator — as if playing Duke isn’t enough — just as the 2014 squad did. Lucas said that, according to Williams, the most powerful tool a coach can use to push his players is when “you can persuade them that no one believes in them.”
Now, that shouldn’t be too hard. It’s the other questions UNC must answer to give Duke a run for its money and, maybe, make history in the process.
“They’re all going to have to play to the absolute top of their ability,” Lucas said. “And if they do that, they got a shot.”
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