No one would have blamed Jon Holmes for transferring after his sophomore year in search of more playing time elsewhere, and no one would have faulted Morehead Scholar Will Johnson for deciding at some point that he would rather just focus on academics and life beyond basketball. Instead, they both stuck it out, through some very difficult times -- and finally, got their just reward Sunday afternoon in Chapel Hill.
For the second time this year, the Tar Heels elevated their game, in both intensity and execution against Duke, and Sunday it was especially nice to see old friend Rashad McCants back to his old exploits. Whether this big win can translate into an improved caliber of basketball in the ACC Tournament and beyond remains to be seen, but be happy that Sunday gave Holmes and Johnson one final taste of how sweet it can be to wear the North Carolina uniform.
It was 25 years ago this week that probably the most famous Carolina Senior Day victory unfolded in Carmichael Auditorium, as North Carolina rode Phil Ford's 34 points to secure the 1978 ACC regular season crown with an 87-83 win over Duke. Where does Sunday's instant classic stack up in the all-time list of "Carolina wins over Duke on Senior Day"?
Pretty high -- but here's one writers's list of the best 10 such wins in the program's history
- 1. 1978. Ford and Mike O'Koren pace second half rally over the eventual national runners-up. Ford teary-eyed at midcourt before game with fellow seniors Tom Zaliagiris and Geff Crompton; cool as a cucumber in hitting the game-clinching free throws with seconds to play.
- 2. 1974. In the Senior Day game for Bobby Jones and Darrell Elston, Carolina takes advantage of two Duke turnovers and a missed free throw to rally from 86-78 down with 17 seconds to play, capped by freshman Walter Davis's 40-foot bank shot at the buzzer to tie the game. Carolina went on to win in overtime, 96-92; thousands of North Carolina schoolchildren spend countless hours in years to come trying to imitate Davis's shot in their backyards. A Carmichael Auditorium record of approximately 250,000 fans attended (or claim to have attended) the game.
- 3. 1984. A game now shown about every six months on ESPN Classic, featuring a made jumper at the regulation buzzer by Matt Doherty to tie the game, a very tight first overtime, and then North Carolina pulling away in the second overtime. Sam Perkins, Doherty, Cecil Exum (and as it turned out Michael Jordan) lose their last game in Chapel Hill? Unthinkable -- but there was some doubt with about 10 seconds to go!
- 4. 1997. Serge Zwikker says goodbye by chipping in 14 points and 10 rebounds to a 91-85 win to cap the greatest second half of the season turnaround in UNC history, as the Heels complete an 8-0 run in the second round of the ACC. Antawn Jamison pours in 33 points and Ed Cota records 11 assists, while Carolina pounds Duke on the boards, 49-18. Final home game for head coach Dean Smith.
- 5. 1993. Carolina had three straight losses to Duke coming into Senior Day for George Lynch, Henrik Rodl, Matt Wenstrom, and Scott Cherry. The Heels were rolling, but still needed the confidence boost a Duke win can provide. Carolina played immaculately on both ends for an 83-69 win, then rolled on to a national title. Sophomore Donald Williams provides a taste of things to game in the postseason by dropping 27 on the Blue Devils.
- 6. 1961. In the final game for not only stars Doug Moe and York Larese but also head coach Frank McGuire, Carolina, banned by probation from the ACC and NCAA Tournaments, topped Duke 69-66 in overtime to win the ACC regular season outright at 12-2; a loss would have resulted in a 3-way tie among Carolina, Duke, and Wake Forest.
- 7. 2003! For over 10 years we've talked about the "Montross bloody head game" against Duke in 1992; now we have the "Felton bloody face game," or perhaps, the "sideline skirmish game" to talk about. None of that would matter save for Rashad McCants, who returned to the form that once made him the odds-on favorite for ACC Rookie of the year with 26 points, and a near triple-double from Felton (18 points, 10 assists, and 8 boards.)
- 8. 1980. Carolina's five seniors -- Mike O'Koren, Dave Colescott, Jeff Wolf, John Virgil, and Rich Yonakor -- enjoy a laugher over a very good Duke team, by the totally unexpected score of 96-71. Virgil has one of the best games of his career with 16 points as the seniors tally a combined 61 points; junior Al Wood tosses in 14 off the bench.
- 9. 1982. The night the lights went out in Carmichael: Minutes into Jimmy Black, Chris Brust, and Jeb Barlow's senior game, the power goes out, leading to a delay of about half an hour. Unfortunately for Duke, the game resumes, and Carolina roars out to a 42-17 halftime lead. Six players score in double figures, and Brust records two tippy-toe dunks in an 84-66 romp.
- 10. 1967. Dean Smith's breakthrough team had already beaten Duke in Cameron, but could not afford a confidence-shaking loss to the Blue Devils going into the ACC Tournament. Carolina's 92-79 win secured the ACC regular season title and a 12-2 conference mark; a week later, Larry Miller and Bob Lewis combined for 58 as the Heels made it three in a row over Duke in the ACC Tournament Final.
- ** (added for good measure) 1995. Carolina was expected to beat last-place Duke, but had to overcome a halftime deficit to do so. Donald Williams had 21 as 5 Tar Heels registered double-digit scoring in the 99-86 win, but the real reason this makes this list is Rasheed Wallace's second half open-court encounter with Duke guard Steve Wojciehowski, resulting in a dunk.
(Thanks to Susan Worley.)