Roy Williams told reporters in his post-game comments that he was in no mood to discuss moral victories after his team fell to NC State 91-83 on Saturday night, but barely avoiding losing a near 60-year reign of superiority over Tobacco Road certainly made him feel good enough to plant the thought in everyone’s minds.
Tobacco Road—the Piedmont of North Carolina, the historic epicenter of college basketball—has traditionally had room for just two dominant teams, and while NC State, Duke and Wake Forest have traded one of those two spots back and forth since the 1950s, the one constant has always been the Tar Heels.
Few programs can match the history and tradition of the University of North Carolina. The Tar Heels boast five NCAA championships, 18 Final Fours and 25 conference titles spread between the ACC and the Southern Conference, but in today’s world of college basketball, history isn’t what it used to be. Each recruiting class is one more year removed from Michael Jordan, and the contributions of the legendary Dean Smith start to fade as more and more coaches pass his mark in career wins and NCAA championships.
However, when Roy Williams returned to Chapel Hill, he promptly won two NCAA championships in four years, before dealing what appeared at the time to be a death-blow to Mike Krzyzewski’s Duke Blue Devils when coveted recruit Harrison Barnes shocked the Hall of Fame coach and committed to UNC, as Barnes appeared to be Duke’s to lose.
Duke responded, en route to a national championship of their own, by solidifying one of those two spots at the top of Tobacco Road with a defining rivalry win—an 82-50 dismantling of the Tar Heels.
Three years later, the Heels found themselves in the middle of a rivalry blowout yet again, this time down 19 at the half to NC State thanks to being on the wrong end of a run reminiscent to the 31-9 run that started the demoralizing Duke loss.
Though North Carolina was unable to escape Raleigh with a win, thanks to a 57-point outburst in the second half, the Heels were at least able to fend off the thought of being on Tobacco Road’s second tier. For a frantic few minutes, it appeared to be a forgone conclusion that NC State would join Duke as the new dynamic duo of Tobacco Road.
Following a questionable charging call against the Wolfpack’s CJ Leslie with just under seven minutes to play and the score 22-18 in favor of the home team, NC State exploded to close out the half, triggered by a transition three-pointer from Freshman Rodney Purvis and a poster dunk by Leslie over Sophomore Jackson Simmons. In the blink of an eye, the Wolfpack led by a score of 45-26 at the half.
The start of the second half didn’t treat the Heels any better than the first as a Lorenzo Brown layup pushed the lead to 28 with 13 minutes remaining, and the Pack were well on their way to a statement win on their biggest stage.
Only, the Tar Heels managed to pour in 50 of the games final 80 points to turn that statement back into the question, “Is this the game the Wolfpack finally catches up to the Tar Heels?”
Was UNC able to cut the NC State lead to just five points with 30 seconds left because of their talent, their resolve or just a failure by the Pack to close out the game and stake their claim among the Tobacco Road elite? Duke certainly left no doubt in 2010, but the Heels were able to fight back just enough to avoid being overtaken by NC State in the ongoing battle of perception that puts much more weight on the future than it does on the past.
And if this NC State team, perhaps its most talented team since the mid-1980s, wasn’t ready to take that step forward against this North Carolina team—losers of four first-round picks to the NBA draft—will it ever really happen?
Hope isn’t lost for the Wolfpack, and the Tar Heels are far from being out of the woods just yet. They’ll host NC State on February 23, and who knows what kind of shape they’ll be in at that point, with games at Miami, at Duke and at home against a streaking Virginia team between now and then.
The small win for the Tar Heels, however, is that the burden of proof is still on NC State to show that they have eclipsed North Carolina on Tobacco Road, and that the question is written in future tense instead of the alternative.
Roy Williams may not be big on moral victories, but he brought it up, and he did so without solicitation. NC State got the win, but in a rivalry where the comparison of perception means everything, UNC was able to barely sidestep a very painful defeat.