UNC basketball: A sigh of relief

Roy Williams couldn't help but smile following North Carolina's win over Duke.

Roy Williams couldn’t help but smile following North Carolina’s win over Duke.

It’s going to be very difficult to write things that haven’t already been written; difficult to write things you haven’t already read about the game from last night. But that’s the beauty of the Duke-UNC rivalry: it never gets old.  In a heated rivalry filled literally with blood, sweat, and tears (for blood and sweat see Tyler Hansbrough, Raymond Felton, Eric Montross; for tears see Duke point guards), the setting leading up to the game and the game itself certainly fit the mold of this classic rivalry.

No matter who you are, where you live, or how much you hate Duke and/or UNC, you know deep down you were somehow emotionally invested in the game for one team or another, even if you are ashamed to admit it. During the game one of my friends that attended N.C. State tweeted “Fan or not- this #UNCvsDuke game is wild. #ACChoops.” In the opening minutes of the game, a longtime friend that is currently a Junior at UNC studying abroad in Melbourne, Australia sent me a snapchat of himself watching the game at a sports bar down under. Yes, the game last night even took precedence on TV’s in Australia. From tiny little Chapel Hill, North Carolina all the way to Melbourne, Australia, the game was (or at least should have been) on your television.

The game, the setting, the crowd, and the hype all lived up to expectations in what is undeniably the best rivalry in college basketball, and debatably the best rivalry in all of American sports besides Yankees vs. Red Sox.

UNC students and fans all over were certainly disappointed that the game was postponed from February 12th due to severe weather, and rightly so. During the course of the next eight days, however, the disappointment turned to hostility, and it was hostility that could be felt by the Duke Blue Devils the second they came out of the tunnel.

UNC fans, who are famously referred to as the “wine and cheese crowd” without question played a huge role in helping the Tar Heels pull out the 74-66 win. The hostility that I referred to could be felt through the television, and I think even those of us not in attendance could feel the ‘buzz’ from the crowd.

Everyone knows how beneficial playing on a home court can be for a team, and the intensity displayed by the 21,750 fans in attendance last night was converted into a little extra energy boost for the Heels, and even Coach K agreed. Of all people, Coach K knows the importance of an intense home crowd. Duke has one of, if not the most hostile crowds of any team in the land, and it is evident for the Duke basketball team. This season, Duke is a perfect 14-0 at home, but just 7-6 on the road or neutral courts.

The eight day delay added fuel to the already burning fire that the Tar Heels started at the Dean Smith Center eight games ago, and ultimately made its way to Franklin Street late last night. With last night’s win, the Tar Heels became the first team since the AP Poll began prior to the 1961-62′ season to defeat the top 4 ranked teams in the preseason poll: Kentucky, Michigan State, Louisville, and now Duke.

Many people criticized the Carolina students for storming the court, including Dick Vitale who was broadcasting the game. Many felt that a team and a school as rich in basketball history and accolades as North Carolina has no business storming the court against any opponent, regardless of rankings. I definitely understand their arguments, and part of me agrees with them.

A much larger part of me disagrees. Think about the very basic “justifications” of court-stormings in college basketball. The underlying cause of this phenomenon was when underdogs (according to rankings) defeated their opposition on their home court when their opposition was favored to win. Although the Heels were only a two-point underdog going into last night’s game, the Blue Devils were ranked 5th in the country, and the Heels were unranked. If you substitute any other two teams for Duke and North Carolina and the unranked opponent were to defeat the ranked opponent on their home floor, a court storming would almost always occur and no one would have a problem with it. So are UNC students prohibited from partaking in this memorable phenomenon just because their school has been good at basketball since before they were born?

After last night’s game, one of the arguments I saw numerous times on twitter was people saying “Oh, so since you stormed the court, I guess y’all didn’t expect to win.”

In all honesty, no. I truly believe that while all UNC fans were hopeful and confident for the Heels to win, the majority of them did not expect to win. After the roller coaster of emotions they have endured thus far, it was justifiable for Carolina fans to be unsure of what to expect in last night’s game, especially after losing two straight games to the Blue Devils in Chapel Hill.

And if a Carolina fan told you that they ‘knew’ Carolina was going to win, chances are they were lying to you; because they didn’t. One team was 5th in the country, playing great basketball, had arguably the best player in all of college basketball, and had won the last two matchups in that arena. The other team has had an up-and-down season to say the least, kicked their best player off the team, and was struggling to find an identity. To put it plainly, one team was expected to win; the other wasn’t.

The court-storming was symbolic in the fact that it seemed to be an “exhale” which Carolina fans were finally able to release. After all of the drama before the season even began, to the suspensions of the team’s best player and only scholarship senior, through the big wins and heartbreaking losses, starting out 1-4 in conference play with sole-possession of last place in the ACC, following the 1-4 start by streaking for 7-straight wins, to an eight-day postponement of the biggest game of the season to this point: and finally to February 20.

A chance to see what this team is really made of, and a chance to continue their win-streak as an unranked team facing the 5th ranked team in the land, who happens to be their most hated enemy. When the last second ran out and the game was over, UNC fans were finally able to let out a collective sigh of relief and truly believe that this year’s team could be great. Rushing the court is a memory that students and fans will have for the rest of their lives, so everyone stop being grumpy sticklers and let the students display the emotions of college basketball.

Last night was the true test of what this North Carolina team was made of, and they passed. After skepticism all season, the win over Duke finally gave fans the confidence that they are used to having in their basketball team. I have been harsh at times with my criticism of Senior Leslie McDonald, the former high school McDonald’s All-American, and the play of freshman guard Nate Britt, but it is time for me to give credit where credit is due. McDonald finally played the way everyone expected him to entering his freshman year by scoring 21 points and shooting 9-12 from the floor. Although Britt only scored 6 points, he was a perfect 6-6 from the free throw line, including 4-4 in the final minute of the game, which was huge for a team that has been miserable from the stripe all season.

Marcus Paige led the way in the second half as he usually does, scoring all 13 of his points in the last 20 minutes. James Michael McAdoo was solid in the frontcourt, finishing with a double-double by scoring 10 points and pulling down 10 rebounds. Brice Johnson’s energy off the bench was as vital as ever as he finished with 5 points and 6 rebounds.

The Heels were able to celebrate last night, but hopefully they will put the win behind them and focus on the remainder of the season. The Tar Heels face Wake Forest on February 22, and need to even the series as Wake Forest defeated the Heels in their first ACC game. The Heels have a ton of momentum going into the final stretch of the regular season, and hopefully they can carry that momentum deep into March. We as fans just have to remember to breathe.