For 45 years, the North Carolina and Duke women’s basketball teams have driven the 10 miles down Tobacco Road to compete in one of the greatest rivalries in sports.
Since the 1975-76 season, the Tar Heels and Blue Devils have suited up in their respective shades of blue and walked onto the court to the screams of huge crowds to face their neighboring rival. The North Carolina-Duke rivalry is a Tar Heel tradition, just like drinking from the Old Well on the first day of classes, climbing the Bell Tower as a senior or graduating in Carolina blue robes on Mother’s Day.
Now, UNC's senior women's basketball players, like so many other students, are learning what to do when traditions are interrupted. Before North Carolina could face the Blue Devils this season, Duke's women's team announced in December that it would be canceling the remainder of its 2020-21 season amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
“You didn’t realize the last time you played them was really going to be the absolute last time you played them,” graduate guard Stephanie Watts said.
Watts is returning to Chapel Hill this season after a lone year riddled with injury at the University of Southern California. The guard was excited about many parts of her return to her alma mater, but looking down the schedule, the Duke game stood out.
“(It’s) one of the games where the gym is just completely packed and flowing with energy,” Watts said.
Like Watts, whose return to North Carolina will miss the rivalry magic, senior center Janelle Bailey will also be leaving campus without her final matchup against the Blue Devils. Bailey was a four-year starter for the Tar Heels and hasn’t been victorious against their rivals from Durham since her very first season in Chapel Hill.
Despite the time that's passed since that 92-86 overtime win, Bailey still remembers the energy when Paris Kea led UNC's comeback from a double-digit deficit to upset the Tar Heels' in-state rivals in Carmichael Arena.
“That is something I can tell my kids I was a part of,” Bailey said.
The end of a college athletic career is a hard pill to swallow during the best of years, so a year with no fans and no rivalry game hasn’t made it any easier. Head coach Courtney Banghart expressed empathy toward her seniors, who will see the college portions of their playing days come to a close this season.
“The finality of your collegiate career is brutal," Banghart said. "I call it their athletic mortality."
Sophomore forward Malu Tshitenge said she immediately thought of Bailey and the other seniors when she heard about the rivalry game's cancellation in the players' group chat. But Bailey said her mind was with the first-year players, who would lose the opportunity to compete in one of the team's biggest games each year.
From first-years to graduate students, Duke’s decision to cancel its season has left an impact on North Carolina players. But at a time when no games are guaranteed, the Tar Heels are happy to be playing at all.
“Next year, I’m sure all of us are going to be grateful just to be able to wear a Carolina uniform, to be on the court, to play Duke in this historic rivalry," Tshitenge said.
As for the players who won’t be back on the floor next season, they will look to remain a part of the rivalry in a different capacity.
“The girls that are on the team now and the recruits coming in are definitely looking forward to it," Bailey said. "It’s something that you always talk about when you come on Carolina’s campus, so I’m looking forward to watching that one next year."