Hollywood couldn’t have scripted the scene any better.
It was Saturday afternoon, January 18, 1986 and the North Carolina Tar Heels were hosting the Duke Blue Devils in the long anticipated, oft-delayed unveiling of the Dean E. Smith Student Activities Center, better known as the Dean Dome.
A national television audience, a sellout crowd of over 21,000, college basketball’s marquee rivalry, the nation’s first- and third-ranked teams, with a combined record of thirty-three wins and no losses to form perhaps the most eagerly-anticipated regular-season basketball game in ACC history.
In one corner stood North Carolina’s Dean Smith, a Hall of Fame coach, at the peak of his powers. In the other corner was Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski, a Hall of Fame coach about to horn his way into the top echelon.
Smith and Krzyzewski boasted rosters that included 11 future NBA players, including six No. 1 picks. North Carolina’s Brad Daugherty would be the top pick in the 1986 NBA draft. Daugherty’s teammate Kenny Smith and Duke’s Johnny Dawkins and Danny Ferry would win at least one major national player of the year award before finishing their college careers. Ironically, the game’s brightest star would turn out to be a player who never sniffed the NBA.
The 1985-86 North Carolina Tar Heels had about everything you could want on a college basketball team. Daugherty, Joe Wolf, Warren Martin, and Dave Popson all hit the tape measure at 6-10 or taller. Kenny Smith, Steve Hale, Jeff Lebo, Curtis Hunter, Steve Bucknall, and Kevin Madden gave Dean Smith a deep, versatile perimeter game. Daugherty was arguably the nation’s top center. The team would shoot an astonishing 55.9 percent from the field. They could score in transition or the half court, they could play top-level defense, they could rebound, and they had experience and leadership.
UNC opened the season ranked No. 2 in the AP poll but quickly jumped to the top spot when top-ranked Georgia Tech lost its opener to Michigan. Carolina opened at home against Reggie Miller and UCLA, the game that was originally scheduled to open the new arena. The Heels won 107-70. They beat Missouri, Purdue, and UNLV to capture the Great Alaska Shootout and continued from there. They entered the Duke game 17-0, firmly entrenched at the top of the polls.
But Duke was nipping at their heels. Duke had captured the inaugural Preseason NIT Tournament with wins over St. John’s and Kansas at Madison Square Garden. Led by seniors Johnny Dawkins, Mark Alarie, David Henderson, and Jay Bilas, and junior Tommy Amaker, Duke could match quality experience with anyone. Bilas was recovering from knee surgery and had temporarily ceded his starting spot to freshman Ferry. Duke came into the game 16-0, ranked third. Michigan was second but had lost earlier in the week.
There was no doubt the game was for the top spot in the polls.
The new arena wasn’t completely alien territory for the UNC players. They’d practiced there eight times, enough to get an idea of how the ball bounced, how the background looked on shots, and other subtle but real nuances that help give the home team an advantage.
Freshman Lebo recalls, “We weren’t superstitious about leaving Carmichael in the middle of an undefeated season. The coaches told us the move would be good for us and we listened to the coaches. We were comfortable in Carmichael but we liked not having to bump our heads in the bigger locker room in the Smith Center, we liked the give in the new floor. Our big question was the noise. At Carmichael the crowd could make so much noise that it literally hurt, a roar that you could feel as much as hear. Could they do that in a more spacious facility?”
Lebo and his teammates would find out.
Smith started a big lineup, with Daugherty, Wolf, and Martin manning the frontline. Martin was recovering from a hand injury and was rusty but combined with Daugherty and Wolf to give UNC a huge size advantage. Hale and Smith were the guards.
There was a wow factor at the beginning. Dawkins remembers, “My first impression was that it was very big, very impressive, no doubt about it. There just weren’t that many places that size in the 1980s. But once the game started, we forgot all about it.”
Lebo agrees. “Being able to play in front of that many people was neat. The energy in the locker room was incredible. But once the game started, the building took a back seat.”
The game was tough, emotional and surprisingly high-scoring. The NCAA instituted a 45-second shot clock for the 1985-86 season but it was not needed for this game. Duke’s Alarie scored the game’s first points, Martin followed for the Heels.
Officials Paul Houseman, David Dodge, and Tom Framm had a hard time getting a handle on the game from the beginning. Wolf picked up three fouls early and spent much of the first half riding the pine. This worked to North Carolina’s advantage. Daugherty was dominating inside, so Carolina didn’t lose much on the boards. Smith moved Hale to small forward and inserted Lebo into the backcourt. Trading a big man for Lebo increased Carolina’s quickness, ball-handling, and perimeter shooting.
Duke led by as much as five points in the early going. With the visitors up 26-23, Alarie missed a shot inside for Duke. Krzyzewski thought a foul should have been whistled. His disposition soured even further when Amaker was called for a reach-in foul on Hale. It was Amaker’s third foul, sending him to the bench for the last seven minutes of the half. Krzyzewski exploded and Dodge hit him with a technical foul.
North Carolina was in the bonus. Hale made both ends of the one-and-one and then made both technical foul shots. Carolina retained possession. Madden scored on a 15-foot jumper off the inbounds pass. Following a Duke miss, Hale scored on a drive and was fouled. He missed the free throw but grabbed the long rebound and found Daugherty inside for a layup.
Hale scored six points and assisted on two more in a stunning 10-0 blitz that took only seconds. Suddenly, the home team was ahead 33-26 and, in Lebo’s words, “the place just exploded.” Lebo and his teammates had their answer. “We didn’t lose anything in the new arena, not a thing.”
A lesser team might have folded their tents and gone home. But Duke hadn’t gone 16-0 by being lucky. Dawkins moved to the point, Duke regrouped, and the two teams exchanged baskets for the rest of the half. Halftime came with UNC leading 48-43.
One of Duke’s strengths was an aggressive man-to-man defense that attempted to deny entry passes, force turnovers, and create easy baskets on the other end. A well-executed offense could exploit this by going back door for layups. But the key words are well-executed.
Lebo says, “It’s easy to talk about but very hard to do. We practiced plays designed to beat Duke’s defense and practiced them some more. It was all about execution. Cuts had to be crisp, passes had to have a purpose. We moved our offense further out in order to have more room. The first few passes were key. We had to make them impatient.”
Carolina put on a backdoor clinic right after intermission. With the score 48-45 Hale stole the ball from Dawkins and scored on a layup. Then Hale scored on a backdoor layup. Then a repeat. A pair of Kenny Smith free throws and a Brad Daugherty put-back pushed the lead to 58-45.
Krzyzewski tried Dawkins on Hale and he tried Henderson on Hale. Neither could stop the flurry of backdoor layups. He tried timeouts. That didn’t work either. The lead stretched to 16 at 64-48.
Duke clawed back into the game. Amaker scored six in an 8-0 Duke run. It was 74-69 with 7:56 left when the UNC defense dug deep and forced stops on six consecutive Duke possessions. Another Hale layup made it 80-69 with 5:28 remaining.
UNC put it away from the foul line. A Duke flurry in the final seconds made the final score 95-92 but the game was long over before the final horn.
Following the game, Hale, one of the most cerebral players to ever wear Carolina blue, summed up his career game. “They were overplaying us. We were able to spread them out and penetrate. It takes a really good fake and a really sharp cut, then it’s just shooting lay-ups. Anyone could have made the shots with the passes we made.”
Henderson summed up the difficulties Duke had with Carolina’s patient offense. “We were trying to pressure them into turnovers by denying their passes. It seemed like we’d be close to a five-second call, work harder to overplay. Then they’d fake and pull the string for the backdoor cut. They caught us off guard and we couldn’t communicate or recover.”
Hale converted 10-of-12 field goals, almost all inside the lane, for a career-high 28 points. Daugherty made it difficult for the Duke big men to cheat by pouring in 23 points and pulling down 11 rebounds, leading the Heels to a crucial 38-30 edge on the glass. Smith and Lebo each scored 11 points, the former with a game-high six assists. Henderson and Dawkins led Duke with 24 and 22 points, respectively.
The victors didn’t have much time to celebrate. A few hours after the conclusion of the game they were in the air on the way to Milwaukee for a game the next day against Marquette. Carolina trailed by nine with four minutes left before rallying for a 66-64 win. Kenny Smith provided the winning points with two foul shots with three seconds left, foul shots made while being pelted with coins. Lebo says the quick turnaround was “probably good for us. We didn’t have time to be smug.”
Did the game meet the hype? Alarie probably summed it up best when he acknowledged, “It wasn’t a classic. The players and the officials never seemed to adjust to each other. It was a stop-and-go kind of game with no real flow.”
Duke was called for 26 fouls, North Carolina 24.
Alarie also acknowledged, “They’re the best team we’ve played. They really don’t have a weakness.”
Certainly no one expected 187 points but the shooting was exceptional. UNC shot 27-31 (87.1%) from the foul line and 34-62 (54.9%) from the field, while Duke converted 36-69 (52.2%) from the field.
Lebo says, “We got the first one out of the way and went on with things.”
Carolina ran its winning streak to 21 but the season didn’t fulfill its early promise. Injuries to Wolf and Hale down the stretch torpedoed the season, which ended in the third round of the NCAAs with a 94-79 loss to a Louisville team that would go on to edge Duke in the title game.
The new-car smell has long since worn off the Dean Dome. There have been better games played there than the opener and the ACC now has newer buildings, with more to come. But it’s not likely anyone is going to have a bigger or better christening than the big, blue building had on that crisp January afternoon.
Article: Jim Sumner
Video: ACC Digital Network