Weeks after being named the head coach of North Carolina basketball, Matt Doherty packed his bags.
Heading out on vacation in August 2000 — to Roy Williams’ South Carolina beach house, ironically enough — Doherty packed all the stuff you’d expect. Sunscreen. Flip-flops. Sunglasses. Everything necessary for a week of relaxation.
Except he also brought game tapes from the previous season, when the Tar Heels were coached by Bill Guthridge. He studied a game against Michigan State, in which UNC fell to the eventual national champions, 86-76. He picked out his new team’s tendencies, how opponents sought to mitigate their strengths and exploit their weaknesses.
Inevitably, there were two games he rewound more than any others: the Tar Heels’ last two matchups with Mike Krzyzewski and the Blue Devils.
UNC lost them both.
“You know that you have to beat Duke to win the ACC,” Doherty told the DTH last month. “So your preparation in the offseason, recruiting, style of play — you always have to think, ‘Can this work against Duke?’”
Fast forward to Feb. 1, 2001, North Carolina’s first shot at revenge and Doherty’s first time in Cameron Indoor Stadium as a head coach. But Doherty and his players — Brendan Haywood, Jason Capel and Joseph Forte, among others — knew they were just the group to buck that trend.
Twenty years later, the dramatic 85-83 win is still the high-water mark of Doherty’s time coaching in Chapel Hill. The rest of his tenure unraveled quickly; an 8-20 record the following year helped make sure of that.
For one night, though, Doherty’s team sat on top of the college basketball world.
“I remember going into that game thinking, ‘We’re better than them, and we’re gonna beat them,’” Capel, UNC’s then-junior forward, said in a phone interview. “We had a game plan, and we followed the game plan. But more importantly, I thought we were extremely together and we were tough. And those are two things you have to be to win in Cameron Indoor Stadium.”
Capel’s confidence wasn’t shared by all. Yes, North Carolina was the No. 4 team in the country, scalding hot and riding a 14-game winning streak. But these are the Blue Devils, themselves ranked No. 2 nationally, we’re talking about. The team that was 5-0 in its last five tries against UNC.
More to the point, this is Cameron Indoor Stadium we’re talking about, a place where Carolina blue dreams go to die. “The lion’s den,” as Capel put it.
“It always seems like any visiting team is going to the slaughterhouse,” Tim Crothers, who covered the game for Sports Illustrated, said. “It just doesn’t seem like it’s ever going to happen, because the atmosphere is so supercharged.”
Doherty was familiar with Cameron Indoor from his playing days (1980-84), but something occurred to him walking onto the court this time. Yes, the building was loud, and yes, it was hot. But it was also tiny.
“It’s a small facility,” he said, “and that’s what I tried to tell the team: ‘It’s just a big high school gym.’ Trying to minimalize it in their minds. And oh, by the way, I’ve never seen a Duke student come out of the stands and block a shot.”
Undaunted, North Carolina got off to a strong start, keeping the home crowd out of it and carrying a 41-34 lead into halftime. That, too, was something Doherty stressed to his team: the importance of keeping the Cameron Crazies’ mouths shut.
So far, they’d done it. The Tar Heels shot 51 percent from the field in the first half to Duke’s 33 percent. The UNC frontcourt had already tallied 25 points, while the duo of Carlos Boozer and Shane Battier had been held to three. Signs pointed to a North Carolina win.
“Even then, though,” Crothers said, “you think there’s no way Duke isn’t going to make their run.”
They did. Battier 3-pointer, Jay Williams 3-pointer, Battier 3-pointer. An 11-2 spurt soon after halftime sliced the lead to two, then Williams gave Duke the lead with a jumper at the 14:21 mark. That was about the time that Capel remembers the floor literally shaking underneath him. Now it was him and his teammates versus about 9,000 people with blue paint on their faces.
“Coaches don’t want to hear this,” he said. “But in Cameron, man, you can’t look over your shoulder. Coach can’t help you. You can’t hear anything.”
Here, though, is where Capel credits Doherty for putting the game in his players’ hands. For letting Forte, who finished with a team-high 24 points, get loose. For letting Capel do a little bit of everything. For letting Haywood control the paint on both ends.
“He just opened the game up and let us go,” Capel said. "There was a game plan. But he gave us the freedom to attack. He prepared us, but he also got out of the way.”
Five lead changes later, the Tar Heels had done enough to scrape together an 83-80 lead with seconds to play. Just one more stop meant a non-upset upset over the No. 2 team in the country, the nation’s longest winning streak preserved and a huge rivalry win for a rookie Tar Heel head coach.
Enter Duke sharpshooter Mike Dunleavy, who missed his first five 3-point attempts of the game but found himself with an open look after a Williams heaved pass downcourt. Bottom. 83-83 with 9.3 seconds left, the formidable threat of overtime looming.
“When they finally tied it, I would have bet the ranch that Duke was going to win the game,” Crothers said.
Instead, Haywood — a 51.6 percent free-throw shooter that season — earned a dubious foul call that sent him to the line. The odds of him making both, let alone one, were closer to one in a hundred given the living, breathing nightmare that was the Cameron crowd.
Dribble. Dribble. Dribble. Pause.
Dribble. Dribble. Dribble. Pause.
No problem. Just 1.2 seconds of defense between the Tar Heels and a win.
But if the wind were blowing a different direction in Cameron Indoor that night, it would’ve been a very, very different story.
“So Duke takes it out, and they throw it to half court to (Chris) Duhon,” Capel recalled. “And I’m right in front of Duhon. And obviously you don’t want to foul, or even get close to him. So I stand there with my hands up and move out of the way. And his shot from half court — it hit the back of the rim. It was on line. But thankfully, it missed.”
The ball clanked off the back rim, and Doherty gave a gracious shrug and strolled through the postgame handshake line as his players celebrated.
Hard to imagine, for him and for others, that this would be the peak of his Tar Heel coaching career, a regular season win in his first year on the job. That two and a half seasons later, he’d be packing his bags for good, his fiery demeanor — in many ways the antithesis of his predecessors, Guthridge and Dean Smith — shepherding his exit. And that a forthcoming book, “Rebound: From Pain to Passion,” would tell the story of his mistakes in Chapel Hill and the lessons he’s gleaned since.
“I was a hard-charging, young coach, and maybe I had the foot on the pedal too much,” he said. “Maybe I should’ve backed off at times. That’s the art of coaching.”
Still, he’ll always have that February night 20 years ago, when his team went into the lion’s den and came out unscathed.