If UNC’s 91-87 win over Duke in Cameron Indoor Stadium on Saturday night proved anything, it’s that even in a pandemic, and even without fans, it was still UNC-Duke.
The tension, the storylines, the excitement, the controversial rushing of Franklin Street; all that and more showed that this game still means everything to players and fans alike.
Let’s be honest, though: as far as UNC-Duke games go, this one was… fine.
It was certainly unique, seeing as how it will be one of only two games of the rivalry (possibly ever?) played without fans in the stands. It also had its exciting moments — a steal from first-year guard Caleb Love in the first half led to a ferocious and-one slam on the fast break, while Duke’s Jalen Johnson had a huge block to maintain an 88-87 scoreline in the dying seconds.
But in the past decade alone, different versions of this age-old matchup have seen nationwide implications, standout performances and moments that will live forever in the college basketball collective unconscious. Compared to those, where does this game stack up?
A few things can lead to a game standing out in the history books — for better or worse.
At the very least, we can say that Saturday’s game was not a blowout. Despite UNC’s lead growing to as much as 12 at one point, both teams were able to keep it close and pour on the points until the very end, even if that meant forgetting the meaning of the word defense. In that regard, this game ranks ahead of matchups like March 9, 2013, where No. 3 Duke led by 18 at halftime and won 69-53 in the Dean E. Smith Center over the unranked Tar Heels.
On the other hand, something that can make a match far more exciting, the stakes. Granted, the stakes are always high when you’re talking about the greatest rivalry in college basketball, but frankly, there wasn’t a whole lot to lose this time around.
Both teams were coming into Saturday night off of what may be their worst losses of the season — UNC only scoring 50 in a blowout loss to Clemson, and Duke losing a way-too-close game to the depleted Miami Hurricanes. In terms of the NCAA Tournament, both teams are currently on the outside looking in, although UNC’s win did bring them closer to the entrance. Sure, playing for pride is important, but ACC or NCAA Tournament aspirations might be a bit more important.
One surefire way to leave your mark on history is with a buzzer-beating, game-winning shot, moments Austin Rivers and Wendell Moore Jr. know all too well, while Coby White probably wishes he knew. There wasn’t really a chance of that happening this game, though, since Jeremy Roach’s last-second heave came with UNC already up four. While UNC only led by four because of Leaky Black hitting three of his last four foul shots, people won't be rewatching those for years to come.
In the grand scheme of the last decade, this game probably falls closer to the bottom than the top. It certainly ranks higher than UNC’s previous matchup with Duke, an 89-76 loss and the last one to take place before the COVID-19 pandemic struck the nation. While Justin Robinson, son of NBA legend David Robinson, did have his greatest collegiate game ever that day with 13 points, six rebounds, four blocks, and three assists, the ascent of Caleb Love — who registered a career-high 25 points on 9-16 shooting on Saturday — matters a bit more.
But at the same time, it’s hard to rank Saturday night above the Feb. 20, 2019, iteration of the rivalry game, known to history as Zion Williamson’s “Shoe Game.” Sure, it was an 88-72 blowout in favor of the Tar Heels, but that destroyed sneaker has become an iconic moment in the short history of one of the NBA’s fastest-growing stars. If his career keeps growing as it has, I don’t see any way of ranking Saturday’s game above a moment like that.
Still, though, it was UNC-Duke, and that counts for something.