After Duke defeated Miami in this year's ACC Tournament semifinal, UNC stood one win away from facing the Blue Devils for the third time this season.
Given the choice of facing the Tar Heels or the eventual-champion Virginia Tech Hokies, Duke star Paolo Banchero didn’t hesitate to give his preference.
“UNC,” he said.
Though Hubert Davis and Co. lost and Duke played Virginia Tech in the ACC final, Banchero got his wish to play North Carolina three weeks later.
But he couldn’t have predicted that his request would breed the most anticipated matchup in college basketball history.
The game certainly lived up to the hype, perhaps even exceeding it. It had everything you could ask for, with engaging storylines, 18 lead changes, future NBA talent on the court and late-game heroics, including an iconic Caleb Love 3-pointer that will go down as the game’s signature moment.
But most importantly — a berth in the national championship game was on the line. A lot to gain, and even more to lose for the losing fanbase.
Seeing their team lose 81-77 is a moment Blue Devils fans will never live down.
Duke lost to not just its archrival, but to a team that single-handedly spoiled Mike Krzyzewski’s farewell tour on two separate occasions.
Losing to the Tar Heels in his last game at Cameron Indoor was enough. But in the first NCAA Tournament matchup in the rivalry’s history?
What do you do after that?
It’s the ultimate “get out of jail free” card. If anyone tries to argue that Duke is the better program, UNC fans will harken back to Saturday.
In an argument about who produces better NBA talent? Or who had the best coach? Or who’s been better in the last “x” amount of years? Just bring up the Final Four.
North Carolina could lose to Duke 10 times in a row. For that matter, it could lose to the Kansas Jayhawks by 20 points in the title game on Monday. It wouldn’t matter.
The Tar Heels won THE game on THE biggest stage.
If UNC beats Kansas for the national championship, it would just add to the significance of Saturday’s win. A loss would, in no way, derail it. In the context of the rivalry, the Tar Heels have won the ultimate title.
So, where do we go from here?
There’s no more Krzyzewski, no more Dean Smith or Roy Williams and, of course, it’s one more category where North Carolina has the upper hand. From this point on, the rivalry can never be discussed the same. Some UNC fans might tell you the rivalry is over now.
Not so fast.
The rivalry has endured its peaks and valleys, but many of the games still delivered.
Just last season, the teams met in Cameron Indoor as unranked teams with no fans in attendance and still put on a wire-to-wire performance. Even on the rare occasion that one of the teams is having a mediocre season, fans lock in for those February and March battles.
There’s not another situation where two teams that are that close in proximity, with that much combined history, will have more on the line in any given game. Records never matter, giving every year an opportunity to produce a classic.
Jon Scheyer replacing Krzyzewski will put Duke in a time of transition, but time will tell how the program responds. Now, there’s an opportunity for Davis and Scheyer to start a new chapter for the two adversaries.
For the time being, the rivalry’s not dead.
But regardless, why would you want it to be?
It produces some of the most electric games in sports. It’s the talk of the town every year, causing divides in households and offices. People are talking about Saturday’s game in barbershops around the country as we speak.
As you always have, you’ll learn to love or hate each new UNC or Duke recruit as they come in. You’ll continue to enjoy the dramatic games and iconic moments. You’ll still talk trash to your classmates and colleagues. You’ll still clear your schedule two to three times a year to watch those two shades of blue go at it, as you always have.
Who knows, maybe one day the Tar Heels and Blue Devils will meet again in the NCAA Tournament. But of its 258 meetings across 102 years, it’s happened just once. And there’s no telling when it will happen again.
The conversation will never die down. The hatred is too strong and each campus is just a car ride away. For some, the opposing fanbase is just two rooms down the hallway.
One side will probably never concede that the other is better, but for Duke fans — good luck finding a counterargument for this Final Four game.
@dthsports | firstname.lastname@example.org
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