One of my fondest memories from an adolescence spent totally obsessed with the sport of basketball was this classic 1995 matchup between the two bitter rivals of Tobacco Road. (To see the entire game, click here)
From the moment the players took the floor and the Cameron Crazies shook the cameras where they stood, this one had a special feel about it.
Duke was 0-7 in ACC play at that point in the season. North Carolina was 7-1. On paper, it looked like a cakewalk for the Tar Heels.
For the first nine minutes of the game, it appeared that was exactly what it was going to be. North Carolina jumped out front and held a 26-9 advantage with just over 11 minutes left in the first half.
Then the tide of momentum began to shift.
After a few poorly executed plays by the Tar Heels, the opportunistic Blue Devil offense had trimmed the lead to 28-17 with 7:54 left in the half.
Rasheed Wallace, who had three monster dunks in the game, used one of them to silence the crowd and gain some of the Tar Heels' lost momentum back. But the Blue Devil tide would not be stemmed for long.
By the time there was 3:30 left in the half, Duke had gone on a 15-4 run and trimmed Carolina's lead to 30-24.
The Blue Devils opened the second half just as hot as they ended the first, and with 18:30 left in regulation, they took their first lead of the game by a score of 35-34.
Then came a string of five consecutive possessions which all ended in baskets for their respective teams.
Duke's Trajan Langdon started it off with his second three-pointer of the game, which was answered on the other end by one of Rasheed Wallace's emphatic dunks. When Cherokee Parks knocked down a three-pointer on Duke's ensuing possession, the Cameron Crazies showed how they got their nickname.
And that's how it went—back and forth, each great play for one side answered by an equally appreciable play from the other until the buzzer sounded, signaling the end of regulation. While the Cameron Crazies bounced and chanted in unison, the visibly exhausted players and coaches regrouped for the start of overtime.
North Carolina was in command for the first 4:50 of the five-minute overtime period.
With 90 seconds left in that first overtime, and the Tar Heels holding a 90-81 lead, announcer Billy Packer called the game for North Carolina. Six seconds of game time later, despite Cherokee Parks' three-pointer moments before, the television crew decided to run the credits, assuming Carolina's six-point lead was still safe.
They were wrong.
Duke fouled, the Carolina players made their free-throws, and Trajan Langdon—perhaps with a little help from the "Cameron ghosts"—knocked down a three-pointer, making it 95-89 with 10 seconds left—still a six-point deficit for the Blue Devils, which had mere seconds to overcome it.
Actually, it would take only one Blue Devil to erase Carolina's advantage. As the clock ticked down from 10 seconds, Jeff Capel drove to the basket, hit the layup and was fouled. He then knocked down the subsequent free-throw to cut the deficit to three points.
The inbound pass went to Carolina's Serge Zwikker who was immediately fouled and then missed both of his free throws—he had to miss them both for Duke to have a chance—and Jeff Capel once again found the ball in his hands, this time with the clock only a few seconds away from showing all zeroes.
Capel let fly with a shot from just inside the half-court circle and, as Dickie V would say, tickled the twine.
Cameron Indoor Stadium shook as if struggling to endure a massive earthquake.
Jeff Capel fouled out of the game shortly after the second overtime started.
Still, the Blue Devils fought.
Duke had possession of the ball, down by two points in the final seconds, but their luck finally ran out as freshman point guard Steve Wojciechowski missed a ten-footer at the buzzer.
I remember kneeling on the ground and leaning over the footstool in front of the TV, a position I had maintained in rapt attention for the entire length of the game, as time expired and just smiling. That the incredible game I had just spent two hours watching had come to an end didn't bother me, though on some level I wished it could have gone on forever. The smile was at once disbelieving and appreciative. I had never seen anything like it. I had just witnessed a truly extraordinary basketball game, one for the ages.
Duke vs. Carolina in 1995 represents the pinnacle of sport and everything that is great about competition.
Players finding the courage and fortitude to step up and be heroes.
The despondency-inducing heartbreak of one moment, followed by the sheer jubilation of the next.
Unfettered, undeterred drive and determination toward a single goal.
The elevation of a building by the feverish excitement of those inside.
Five individuals functioning as one.
Fearlessness in the face of hopelessness.
It is the best that sport can aspire to, and it affected me profoundly. Maybe that is why I am a sports fan today. Am I still trying to recapture those moments from 1995 when, for two hours, nothing else in the world mattered so long as the the exemplars of human physical achievement I was watching on the screen continued their awe-inspiring performances?
I think so.