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Zwiller: A UNC fan’s perspective on the Final Four

| Monday, April 4, 2022

Every college sports program has an all-time rivalry. It is one of the few ways college sports are better than the pros. For me, the rivalries feel more authentic. Every school has a rivalry filled with iconic moments that make it unique. 

For Notre Dame fans, one such moment might be the October 15th, 2005, game against USC and the now-infamous “Bush Push” that propelled USC to the national championship game. 

But most great college sports rivalries center around football. Basketball seldom gets its due until March. 

However, one of the most iconic sporting rivalries of all time is North Carolina-Duke men’s basketball. And on Saturday night, the rivalry delivered one of the greatest college basketball games ever. 

An incredibly old rivalry, the first-ever matchup was played in 1920 (UNC won), and the two teams have played annually ever since. Not only is it an old rivalry, but it is a close one, with UNC owning the series 142-115 (.553). UNC has six national championships, seven if you count the 1924 title. Duke has five and all of them were won in the Coach K era. 

When Coach K made his final trip to the Dean Smith Center, I was incredibly excited. As much as I dislike Coach K (I am a UNC fan, after all), I respect him and know he is an irreplaceable part of the rivalry. As much as I would not miss him, his departure would change both schools.  

And then Duke blew out Carolina 87-67, and I was left incredibly disappointed even if I should not have been. Duke was just the more talented team, sporting multiple future first-rounders.

There would be just one more chance for the Tar Heels to beat Coach K: in his final game at Cameron.

My hope felt like blind optimism. Though they had played better since the loss, UNC had just gotten blown out by Duke. There would be no more storybook ending for Coach K than taking out his rivals one last time.

However, Carolina shocked me by hanging around. At the half, down only two, it suddenly felt like a winnable game.

And at the 9:50 mark, when RJ Davis tied the game at 61, the Tar Heels never looked back. The Heels would go on to outscore the Blue Devils 33-20. 

The unranked 11 point underdogs had emphatically blown out Duke on one of the biggest nights in the program’s history. With the win, the Tar Heels had gone from a bubble team with questions to a March Madness certainty, all at the expense of Coach K. 

I felt relieved when UNC did not play Duke in the ACC tournament. Had UNC faced Duke, a retaliatory blowout felt inevitable. 

I was initially dismissive when people pointed out the possibility of a UNC-Duke Final Four. It had never happened before, and a deep UNC run felt out of the question. 

But I underestimated the Heels. And as though the two were destined to collide, they each advanced through the tournament both arriving in NOLA. 

UNC and Duke would faceoff in the Final Four for the first time, ever. In a season, that was both UNC head coach Hubert Davis’ first and Coach K’s last. The teams split the regular-season series. And, of course, a trip to the national championship was on the line. 

It was a game that had all the billings of an instant classic. For Duke, it was one last chance for Coach K to stick it to UNC. UNC had the chance to send Coach K into early retirement.  

The game lived up to the hype, something that rarely happens with a game of this magnitude. And as I watched Caleb Love hit a dagger three, a shot I know will live on in college basketball history, I realized I had just watched the greatest game of all time. Not just because of the quality, but because of the storylines.

I have no idea if UNC will win the championship game against Kansas. And while I want UNC to win, I am okay if they do not. Beating Coach K at his homecoming was the only thing I needed from this UNC team. Beating Duke in the Final Four and retiring Coach K is a championship on its own to UNC fans. Go Tar Heels!

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About Thomas Zwiller

Thomas is a sophomore currently in attendance at Holy Cross College, studying Business and Theology He is from Saint Joseph MI, and went to high school at Saint Joe SB, playing both varsity football and hockey. Feel free to contact him about all things NFL and NBA.

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