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'That carries with you forever': Looking back at Walter Davis' buzzer-beater against Duke 50 years later

UNC bball Walter Davis Duke 1974

Forward/guard Walter Davis (24) shoots the ball on March 2, 1974 in a game against Duke in Carmichael Auditorium. Photo Courtesy of UNC Athletic Communications.

Phil Ford couldn’t bear to watch.

It was Senior Day for the 1973-74 UNC men’s basketball team and with about 30 seconds left in regulation, an upset at the hands of the Blue Devils seemed inevitable. With the game still blaring from his television, Ford stepped outside.

“I started washing my dad’s car because I didn’t want to watch the guys lose,” Ford, who was a senior in high school at the time, told The Daily Tar Heel. “I had to go back inside to get something and the game was still on. To make a long story short, I didn’t see it live but I’ve seen many replays of it.”

The "it" in question? One of the most iconic shots in UNC men’s basketball history.  

Nearly 50 years ago, on March 2, 1974, North Carolina first-year Walter Davis banked in a long-range buzzer-beater to cap off an eight-point comeback in the final 17 seconds against Duke. The shot sent the game to overtime, where the Tar Heels won, 96-92. 

"[Davis] said after the game, 'As soon as I let it go, I knew it was way off,'" Art Chansky, a veteran sportswriter and author of several UNC basketball books, told The DTH. "But it was so off that it hit the backboard and banged into the basket." 

Down by two, then-head coach Dean Smith decided in the huddle to hit Davis, who would be protected by a double screen past midcourt. But first, a long inbounds pass had to be made.

Oh, and there were three seconds on the clock.

Charlotte Hornets general manager Mitch Kupchak, who assisted on the shot as a then-sophomore, can still recall each detail in vivid color.

“We drilled it so often in practice, all you had to do was throw the ball to a space and then you’re assuming the other person is doing what they’re supposed to do, and they’re going to turn around and the ball is going to be there,” Kupchak told The DTH. “So really, I just threw the ball to an area and I knew [what] he was going to do.”

In football, it’s referred to as a square route — you run down, plant and go to the right. All Kupchak had to do was throw it to the correct spot.

“As fate would have it, he caught it and I think he took a dribble and just banked it in,” Kupchak said. “I remember the crowd leaving the building and then slowly as we scored — two more, two more and a couple of free throws — they started coming back into the building.” 

Then-DTH assistant sports editor Michael Davis, recapping the game in The DTH the following Monday, wrote: “It’s very hard to determine at this point who were the biggest losers in the Tar Heels’ miraculous 96-92 victory over Duke — the Blue Devils themselves or those skeptics who left in the last minute of regulation play.”

And for those who were lucky enough to see the play in person, the moment took on a mythical, almost hazy, quality. Bill Cole, a retired sports journalist who worked for the Winston-Salem Journal for nearly 40 years, said people still disagree on how far the shot was. 

UNC refers to it as a 25-foot shot. But as for others?

“Some people say it’s 40 [feet],” Cole told The DTH. “Other people say he hit it from midcourt, and then there’s other people who swear he shot it from somewhere out on Fetzer Field.”

Ron Green Jr., who worked as a Charlotte Observer sportswriter for 23 years, said the shot became part of the lore and legend of Carolina basketball.

As a young teenager living in Charlotte, Green remembers running outside to his basketball goal immediately after the game and trying to duplicate the shot with his friends.

“It was one of those moments you didn’t quite see coming,” he told the DTH. “But here we are 50 years later still talking about it and watching it.”

Just ask Kupchak. He said since he moved back to North Carolina six years ago, people continue to bring that play up when they bump into him.

“The Duke shot, that carries with you forever because it instills in you the never-give-up attitude,” Kupchak said. “You’re never out of it.”

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Shelby Swanson

Shelby Swanson is the 2023-24 sports editor at The Daily Tar Heel. She has previously served as an assistant sports editor and senior writer. Shelby is a junior pursuing a double major in media and journalism and Hispanic literatures and cultures.