One Last Time

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – The prevailing thought for Sunday's matchup between No. 2 North Carolina and No. 7 Duke is that defeating Tyler Hansbrough and Co. on Senior Night will be too difficult for the Blue Devils to overcome. But if this rivalry has taught us anything, it's that anything can happen.

UNC head coach Roy Williams nearly exploded during Friday's press conference when asked if Sunday's clash bore any resemblance to the regular-season finale in 2006, in which an overmatched Tar Heel squad walked into Cameron Indoor Stadium and ruined J.J. Redick's Senior Night.

"Guys, come on – they're the seventh-ranked team in the country," said Williams, who referenced last season's game when Duke boasted eight McDonald's All-Americans to UNC's five. "Wow… If somebody tries to sell that to you, let me know, because I can sell you a lot of old golf balls and crap. Two weeks before our [first] game, they were playing better basketball than anybody in the ACC. Period. Right now, they've won four in a row. Who else has won four in a row in this league? Who else? Nobody."

Oddly enough, however, the sentiment that North Carolina will not lose the 227th edition of this intense rivalry is emanating more from the Tar Heel fan base than anywhere else. Ever since the Feb. 11 victory over the Blue Devils in Durham, the conversation on talk radio and message boards has been that road challenges at Maryland and Virginia Tech would be more difficult than the home finale against Duke.

While North Carolina will be favored on Sunday, history has illustrated time and time again that possibly the grandest cliché of sports journalism is applicable for this rivalry – records and statistics can be thrown out of the proverbial window.

But the origination of this thought process is not built around arrogance or superiority; it's built around a storybook ending. Tyler Hansbrough and his accompanying senior class prevented an expected downfall following the 2005 national championship run, and a special link to the Tar Heel faithful was quickly established. Now, four years later, the fan base simply cannot fathom this senior class' final game at the Smith Center ending in disaster.

A loss is out of the question. It just wouldn't be right, would it?

"I'm not really thinking about that, to be honest with you," Hansbrough said when asked if Duke could get revenge for Redick's Senior Night antics. "But it's a possibility if we don't come out and play."

The Blue Devils will cling to the underdog role if it's provided to them, but it's not as though they need the help. Duke has won five in a row, has a legitimate ACC Player of the Year candidate in Gerald Henderson and is fighting for a share of the ACC regular-season title and the No. 1 seed in next week's conference tournament.

The emotions surrounding the last hurrah of the '05 class won't change that, especially on the court. But for these players and for this fan base, this is it.

After Sunday, Danny Green's dancing days – at least at the Smith Center – are over. Bobby Frasor's ever-evolving role as a Roy Williams impersonator is drawing to a close, as is Mike Copeland's humorous attempts as a locker room television reporter. And when walk-ons Jack Wooten, J.B. Tanner and Patrick Moody exit the court for their final time as the game clock methodically ticks to zero, they will do so knowing that millions of the Tar Heel faithful are completely envious of their four years in Chapel Hill.

As for Tyler, while it would be an arduous task to list out all of his awards and accomplishments in this column, it could be done. But 20 or 30 years from now, when your children or grandchildren look through the UNC record books, there very well may be other names in places where Hansbrough's was once inscribed.

His legacy was never about the statistics, though. It has been about desire, competitiveness and determination. It's about never being outworked. It's about hurting so bad after a Final Four loss that your eyes are still red and swollen 24 hours later when you're accepting a national player of the year award, and it's about enjoying the game so much that you become an overnight YouTube sensation, thanks to your awkward on-court celebrations.

It's just too soon to quantify the importance of this senior class, especially Hansbrough.

On Nov. 19, 2005, this collective bunch of seniors took the floor for the first regular-season home game of their career. For Green, that game stands out as arguably his best memory at the Smith Center.

"I was overwhelmed when I ran out of that tunnel for the first time, and 22,000 people stand up and are cheering for you," Green said. "It's kind of hard to take in as a freshman."

On Sunday, the seniors will run out of that tunnel one last time, and there's no doubt the tears will be flowing freely throughout the arena. But while Senior Night is the high mark for most programs across the country, none of these seniors are content to write the final chapter of their career quite yet. There's still work to be done.

Hansbrough was asked what the lasting imprint of his class will be during Friday's press conference, and his reply spoke volumes.

"That's to be determined," he said. "We'll see what happens."

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