When legendary Alabama football coach Paul “Bear” Bryant said “Nothing matters more than beating that cow college on the other side of the state," he was talking about his Crimson Tide’s most hated rivals, the Auburn Tigers. But for the North Carolina Tar Heels, the object of their unending ire doesn’t live all the way across the state, but just eight short miles down Tobacco Road in Durham, and the Duke game is one they cannot lose — mediocre season be damned.
Who cares about squeaker wins against Miami or embarrassing blowout losses to Clemson? For UNC, in this most strange season, all of that can be temporarily washed away if the Tar Heels can put it together for one night against the Blue Devils.
For that one night, UNC-Duke is all that matters. And you know what? By a score of 91-87, the Tar Heels silenced all the outside noise on Saturday night in Durham.
“This is still one of the best rivalries in America,” senior forward Garrison Brooks said. “It’s still a very big game. I think it meant a lot to us because we needed to win and they needed to win.”
Needed to win — not wanted, needed.
Coming into tonight, much of the talk focused on what this game wasn’t.
It wasn’t a matchup between national championship contenders — in fact, both teams were unranked heading into the matchup for the first time since 1960. It wasn’t an explosive fan bonanza — the players had to settle for paper-and-ink Cameron Crazies glaring at them silently from cardboard cutouts.
For everything it wasn’t, it was still UNC-Duke. For the players, despite everything that was missing, the emotions were still there, all the same.
“I can’t even explain it,” junior forward Leaky Black said. “It feels good, though, fans or no fans. We beat Duke, so it definitely feels good.”
But you don’t even need to hear their words to know how special this game was to them. First-year guard Caleb Love proved what it meant to him on the court, scoring a career-high 25 points on 9-16 shooting and going 4-5 from 3-point range — a performance that puts all of his previous outings to shame.
UNC’s powerful core of big men also proved what it meant to them, with Brooks, sophomore Armando Bacot and first-year Day’Ron Sharpe combining for a monstrous 39 points and 21 rebounds, all while each of them shot at least 50 percent or more from the field. But one might be inclined to ask: does the team North Carolina played against diminish its accomplishment?
Sure, Duke now sits at a mediocre 5-5 in ACC play and came into tonight’s matchup off a dreadful 77-75 loss to the short-handed Miami Hurricanes. But it doesn’t matter.
It doesn’t matter that Love’s career night or a tremendous performance in the paint came against a middling ACC team. It doesn’t matter that North Carolina didn’t have a great defensive performance, needing all 91 points to scrape past the Blue Devils’ 87. That’s not how the players, or UNC fans, see it. To them, those great games and those tight scores came against Duke.
For fans, Duke will always be Duke — a league of "super-villains" with dark blue blood, an intolerable Devil mascot and a "supremely evil" mastermind at the helm, Mike Krzyzewski, the darkness trying to obscure Roy Williams’ light.
Rain or shine, fans or no fans, that storyline remains. Those feelings, in the hearts and minds of fans and players alike, remain just as strong now as if they were playing for a national championship. It’s always going to be close, because they cannot lose to one another. They don’t want this win, they need it.
“It’s always going to be close, that’s the rivalry,” Bacot said. “We just fought, and we came out with a W, and that’s all we care about.”
So, remember Bear Bryant’s words when the Tar Heels and Blue Devils face off a month from now in the Dean E. Smith Center, likely playing in front of empty seats and under championship banners — a prestige neither team is projected to reach this season. His words ring true, maybe now more than ever, for those on the court who are playing for their pride, or those at home, cheering with everything they have.
Nothing matters more.