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Art Chansky is the author of three books on basketball, including The Dean's List , Dean's Domain, and March To The Top. His work has appeared in Sports Illustrated , Basketball Times , the official NCAA Tournament program, and alumni magazines of both Duke and UNC. He has also been featured on ESPN and CNN/SI specials on the Duke-Carolina rivalry.
Tides of March
The Dean Smith Center was empty, except for the cleanup crew. The words "ACC Champions" were still illuminated on the new electronic boards on the fascia of the upper deck. Carolina had just beaten Florida State, surviving a 60 percent shooting half by the Seminoles, to clinch at least a tie for first place in the 2005 Atlantic Coast Conference standings.
One regular-season game remained, the biggest. It was more than sixth-ranked Duke coming in on Sunday afternoon. More than national TV with broadcasters Jim Nantz and Billy Packer sitting courtside. More than the latest renewal of the greatest rivalry in college basketball or perhaps any sport on any level.
The Tar Heels had to win this game for the preservation of their own collective sanity. Duke had won 15 of the last 17 meetings dating back to 1999, its most dominant stretch in the ninety-year history of the series. That statistic more than anything else had made the rivalry a moot point with many Blue Devil fans.Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski was the new king of college basketball, a twenty-first century sideline CEO with power and prestige that pushed the legend of UNC coach Dean Smith further into the past. Roy Williams's arrival from Kansas as Carolina's new coach was supposed to erase the memory of a disastrous transition from the Smith era and begin evening the score with Duke.
Yet Williams had lost two heartbreakers during his first year in Chapel Hill when the Blue Devils returned to another Final Four. This season, 2005, Carolina finally had the better team in terms of depth and talent. However, the Tar Heels had failed to prove it the previous February 9 at Duke, where they had lost again.
Thus, Carolina owned an ironic form of pressure. Looking up from the top.
A win would give the Tar Heels the ACC regular-season title outright for the first time since 1993 and only three years after three seniors on the team and their fans had suffered through an 8--20 debacle. A loss to Duke would still leave them in first place but with a hollow title after having been swept by the Blue Devils a second straight season.
If Williams didn't beat Krzyzewski soon, the comparison he had tried so hard to avoid would stick like Velcro. His second Tar Heel team was ranked higher than Duke with fewer losses in both the ACC and overall. The Blue Devils were down to six healthy dependable players; despite not having ill Rashad McCants for the fourth consecutive game, Carolina was still deeper.
There was also the emotion of playing at home in front of a sold-out crowd of nearly twenty-two thousand fans on Senior Day for Jackie Manuel, Melvin Scott, and Jawad Williams, the trio that had somehow survived two years and 36 defeats under coach Matt Doherty. UNC had everything in its favor. The Tar Heels had to win.
Roy Williams knew that. On Sunday morning, he told Smith Center Director Angie Bitting to have two tall ladders in the tunnel after the game.
Two hours before the 4:00 p.m. tip-off, thousands of fans had descended upon the Dean Dome, hanging around in sunny, (60-degree weather. Thirsting to beat the Blue Devils, they had the hottest and most valuable tickets of any Duke-Carolina game in memory. A seller's market if there were any sellers.
A Chapel Hill man was there with his two grade-school daughters. He was offered $5,000 for his three tickets. "I have a choice for you," he said to his girls, "I can sell these tickets and we can all go to Disney World next week. Or we can go to the game." They tugged at his hand and kept walking.
Duke's team bus pulled into the tunnel beneath the arena at 2:30 p.m. Krzyzewski was greeted by John Dubis, UNC class of 1990 and the operative assigned to guide and guard all opposing coaches. Dubis led the Duke party to its two locker rooms, one for the Blue Devils and one for the coaches, primarily Krzyzewski, who once inside took off his expensive suit jacket, hung it in a locker and spread the game plan out on one bench.
Krzyzewski didn't like the characterization that this was one of his better coaching jobs. With his ill or injured players missing a total of twenty-nine games, he had used ten different starting lineups. After losing at Maryland and Virginia Tech, he started walk-ons Patrick Davidson and Patrick Johnson against Wake Forest to send a message to his team because "these were the only two guys who believe in me." Krzyzewski was crazed that night, screaming at the officials from first minute of the game when Davidson committed a blatant foul on Wake's Chris Paul. Duke won the war 102--92 to snap the rare two-game losing streak.
Once considered a defensive coach whose teams were vulnerable when playing five-on-five half-court basketball, Krzyzewski had conceived an offense that got the ball inside easily to center Shelden Williams while relying on J. J. Redick's radar from the perimeter. Using the double-teaming attention paid to Redick, Duke still liked to run but also worked patiently to create open shots for Daniel Ewing and lefty Lee Melchionni as their third and fourth scoring options.
They had won their first 15 games, during which Krzyzewski reached 700 career victories, but 4 midseason losses, including 2 to Maryland, had locked the Blue Devils out of first place and rendered the finale with Carolina to rivalry-game status. It was a rivalry he had owned since a year after Smith retired in 1997.
His players went out to warm up with the assistant coaches while he remained in seclusion. They returned just before game time, and, after meeting with them briefly, Krzyzewski put his jacket back on and gathered his papers. He waited until they took the court before walking down the corridor by himself, trailing Dubis by a few feet. It was exactly the same routine he used every year Duke played in Chapel Hill. His pregame ritual was military to the minute.
Something else happened again, as it had without fail when the Duke coach entered the playing court and faced what Dubis called a "wave of hate, a blast of white noise that is really loud."
As Krzyzewski passed through the tunnel, a plastic baggie of cheese dangled on a string from above the railing. The coach Tar Heel fans called "Rat Face" for his pointy nose and narrow jaw was in the house.
He did not see the cheese, or anything else specifically, looking stone-faced and straight ahead as he strode purposefully along the baseline behind Dubis. His expression broke when he reached Williams. They chatted cheek-to-cheek; several photographers closed in to capture the moment. After the national anthem and lineup introductions, the starters shook hands around the center circle, the din rose again and the ball was in the air. The game college basketball fans, near and far, saw as the unofficial start of post-season was under way. Duke-Carolina on the last weekend.
Duke scored first against UNC's Senior Day lineup that started two walk-ons. Redick's first three-pointer gave the Blue Devils a 5--0 lead, his step-back jumper made it 16--9 and his second "three" from way out on the left opened Duke's biggest lead at 19--11. Nervous noise rose whenever he touched the ball.
Carolina's 8--0 run, ending with Manuel's breakaway flying dunk over two Dukies, evened the game after nine minutes. Freshman Marvin Williams's only basket of the half gave the Heels a five-point lead, but Redick's fourth three-ball from the right wing triggered a spurt that put his team back ahead at the last media timeout before halftime.
During the break, CBS aired a new American Express commercial featuring Krzyzewski.
I don't look at myself as a basketball coach....I look at myself as a leader who happens to coach basketball.
When play resumed, those sitting along the scorer's table saw another side of him. After freshman DeMarcus Nelson couldn't get in the game, Krzyzewski glared at official scorer Mark Isley and screamed "Bullshit!" at the explanation that Nelson had arrived too late. Krzyzewski clapped mockingly at Isley after Ewing, the man Nelson was to replace, picked up a foul in the midst of a late 11--4 scoring run by the Tar Heels.
"Good job! Good job!" he yelled over sarcastically. "That one's on you!"
"Bullshit!" he yelled again at Isley while stalking off the court at the half, Duke down 47--41, to the jeers and catcalls of Carolina fans sitting near the tunnel.
Official Larry Rose stopped at the scorer's table to see what had happened. Rose was a veteran referee who over the years seemed to work a lot of Duke games and had the unflattering nickname around the ACC of "Duke's Sixth Man." Scott Williams, the twenty-eight-year-old son of Carolina's head coach, stood in his second-row seat and stared at Rose. "Larry Rose, be a man. Be a man, Coach K owns you!" Williams shouted.
Rose heard the taunt, looked up and told a UNC security guard to remove his heckler. The younger Williams went to the private box behind Section 127 where the rest of his family usually watched home games. His father was furious when he found out what happened before the second half began.
Carolina went ahead 49--41 and it looked for a moment like the team that had to win would win. Then Melchionni, who had missed all three of his attempts in the first half, hit two three-pointers. Manuel, having his most aggressive offensive game of the season, became Carolina's unlikely scoring star.