No cooling this rivalry

Thanks to the research of The Daily Tar Heel, we learn that the intense rivalry between the University of North Carolina and Duke began when George Washington was president. It hasn’t cooled off yet. Maybe it’s due to the proximity of their campuses, about eight miles in a straight line, more like 10 if one sticks to US 15-501. Maybe it’s something else.

The tension between the two universities predates the invention of basketball in 1891. UNC and Duke didn’t have basketball teams until 1906 and 1911. Their first game against each other took place in 1920. UNC won, 36-25. These days that would count as a low halftime score. Through the years, as college basketball grew in popularity, the rivalry between the neighboring universities, one public, the other private, intensified.

That might have reached a peak on Wednesday night at Cameron Indoor Stadium when the two men’s basketball teams faced off for a 9 p.m. game before a raucous crowd that included former president Barack Obama. The cheers and jeers suddenly grew silent a mere 36 seconds into the game when Zion Willliamson, Duke’s best player, fell and grabbed his leg in pain. One of his shoes had split open, causing him to slip and crash awkwardly to the floor, all 6 foot 7, 284 pounds of him.

Williamson walked to the locker room under his own power, carrying the remains of his shoe, but he was unable to return to the game. Clearly, the absence of its star player forced Duke to adjust its strategies, but it wasn’t enough. Carolina won, 88-72.

Would the game have been different if Williamson had been able to play? Certainly. Which team would have won? Naturally, the views of fans of each team would differ, and finding an objective observer in these parts would be a challenge. For what it’s worth, here is mine, and in full disclosure, it can’t help but be tinted by my long, affectionate association with UNC.

Carolina dominated the game from the outset, starting with the opening seconds before Williamson’s unfortunate fall. This is undeniable. Players wearing light blue executed at probably their highest level thus far this season, on several occasions reversing Duke’s defensive steals and taking the ball the other way for a score. Throughout, UNC players took charge and played with confidence the entire game.

Two of the nation’s best college basketball teams went at it with all they had. What a game. Williamson’s presence would have made a difference, but Carolina showed me and a nation of basketball fans that the men in light blue would have won anyway. We can expect Duke fans to attribute Carolina’s victory in this game solely to Duke’s loss of its best player. Let them. Tar Heel fans know better.

The two teams will face each other again on Saturday, March 9, this time in the Dean E. Smith Center in Chapel Hill. Expect no decline in intensity. I’m counting the days.



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