A quick note: after you read this summary from the Carolina perspective, check out Alex’s take below on what this game means for Duke. If you somehow haven’t already affiliated yourself, please… choose wisely.
Equal parts trembling excitement and sickening apprehension - that’s what every Duke-Carolina matchup brings in the days and hours leading up to tipoff. As a fan you go through a wide range of emotions before the players even take the court, visualizing every possibility: a miraculous buzzer-beating win by your team that causes a spontaneous trampling of your opponents by fans rushing the court in a sea of excitement… or an 80-point blowout that leaves you weeping silently to yourself as your best player gets injured and recruits hastily de-commit from your school after all the embarrassment. Sure, that may be hyperbole, but the idea is that you prepare yourself for anything.
This year those feelings are heightened even more for Carolina’s fan base, and surely the team must be feeling it, as well. How do you know what to expect from a team that was expected to do so much but has underperformed so drastically? The media loves to pound away at the idea that you have to throw away everything you know when these two teams play each other - because apparently past performance doesn’t predict the outcome when a rivalry game is involved! - and UNC fans are clinging to that concept as a last resort in a season that has already dashed much our hopes for postseason glory. Alex of course posited that all the pressure is on Duke, which is of course true in a certain sense, but UNC also has a pressure of having all its eggs now placed in a single basket: beating Duke may be the only thing this team can accomplish to salvage its pride. If Duke loses, it certainly is a black eye, but Duke fans still have a potential number-1 seed to hold over our heads. For Carolina, it’s looking more and more like there is no grander mission of making it into the big dance: these games against our hated rival is just about all we have.
And yet, we still believe - that’s what tonight represents for Carolina: a chance to restore our faith in something that has been shaken to the core. It’s no secret that a win against the Devils, who are enjoying another tremendously successful season, would salvage a small piece of this season for the Heels. Or, as my good friend Matt Tester phrased it in the parlance of our times: “a beatdown of Duke covers a multitude of fail.”
Faith in this team is just about all we have coming into this game: UNC is playing pretty badly right now; they don’t match up well against Duke; the Devils are clearly better than Carolina this year; yet ANOTHER one of UNC’s key players just went down with an injury (this time it’s Travis Wear, who apparently will miss the game with a severely sprained left ankle he got landing on a teammate’s foot in practice yesterday - oh and by the way, Zeller won’t be back for this game); and Duke’s four losses don’t leave any kind of blueprint or clue for how to beat them (as Carolina March detailed in an excellent article earlier today, you basically either have to shoot the lights out, slow the pace and commit no turnovers, or frustrate their offense and get them in foul trouble early… unfortunately, none of those are likely).
And yet, we still believe. Even in a year where Duke struggled through a 2-14 record in the ACC, they still turned in a 102-100 thriller in Durham against Carolina that resulted in one of the most memorable moments in the history of the rivalry.
With an assortment of Carolina’s patron saints in house tonight, as well as one of them getting ready to have his jersey retired in the rafters, you start to talk yourself into something great happening tonight - why not now? Why not this team? Why not a miracle? And make no mistake, beating Duke right now would be nothing short of miraculous.
But nonetheless: We. Still. Believe. Go Heels!