Carolina hosts UNLV on Saturday in unusual circumstances. From the moment the schedule was released, this was one of the home nonconference highlights-the Rebels sprung an upset of the top-ranked Tar Heels in the Las Vegas Invitational last year, and the annual post-Christmas game ticket rush means tickets are in high demand to see a rematch that will look very different than last year's matchup (you already know about the Carolina roster changes, and two main UNLV contributors were seniors, plus rebounding machine Mike Moser is out with an elbow injury).
But Saturday's game is unique for another reason: it will be only the fifth time in 179 nonconference games played in the Smith Center that an unranked Tar Heel squad has hosted a ranked opponent. Carolina is 2-2 in the previous four matchups, including a signature win--and a signature loss. History suggests tomorrow's crowd will see a memorable game, as three of the previous four games in this situation have been decided in the final 20 seconds.
Nov. 28, 2001: No. 24 Indiana 86, Carolina 76. The most easily forgettable game on this list, Carolina was coming off back-to-back home losses to Hampton and Davidson on the way to an 0-3 start and an eventual 8-20 campaign. How bad was this year? The Tar Heels have suffered a total of 12 nonconference losses in the history of the Smith Center. Four of them came in this season-in addition to Hampton, Davidson and Indiana, the Tar Heels also fell to Ohio. Not Ohio State, but Ohio. It was that kind of year.
In the game against the Hoosiers, Kris Lang scored a career-high 27 points and added eight rebounds, but it wasn't enough to keep pace with Indiana's torrid first-half three-point shooting. The Tar Heels trailed by 10 at halftime and would get no closer than eight the rest of the way.
"I'm excited about this team," Matt Doherty said after the game. "That may sound sick to you guys, because we're 0-3."
Jan. 18, 2003: Carolina 68, No. 6 Connecticut 65: This victory over the Huskies, one of the signature wins of the Doherty era, was the antithesis of the 8-20 season. Playing without Sean May, who had broken his foot in New York in what seemed at the time like a season-crushing injury, the Tar Heels got 27 points from Rashad McCants and avenged a 32-point loss in Storrs the previous season.
Even more impressively, Carolina did it the hard way, as Connecticut took its first lead of the game on an Emeka Okafor dunk with 1:16 left. But Jawad Williams hit a jumper to send the Tar Heels back on top. After Ben Gordon missed a three-pointer, Raymond Felton did his best Bob Cousy impression, dribbling 30 seconds off the clock before the Huskies were finally able to foul McCants, who dropped through a pair of free throws with 3.3 seconds remaining to provide the final margin.
Fans in the sold-out Smith Center--which will be in the same condition tomorrow, when the home atmosphere could be an important lift--stormed the court after the game.
Nov. 29, 2005: No. 12 Illinois 68, Carolina 64: I'm biased, but this is one of my favorite games of the Roy Williams era. We think of it differently now, because we know how that freshman class of Bobby Frasor, Tyler Hansbrough, Danny Green and Marcus Ginyard turned out. At the time, though, they were just a group that needed a buzzer-beating three-pointer from David Noel to beat Gardner-Webb, and this ACC-Big Ten Challenge matchup was supposed to be a walkover for the Illini, who were still smarting from their national championship loss in front of a virtual home crowd the previous season.
Illinois did build a 14-point second-half advantage, but Carolina melted nearly all of it away during a 12-0 run that closed the gap to 64-62. After the Illini's Jamar Smith missed the front end of a one-and-one, the Tar Heels had the chance to capture the rebound and play for the tie or win, but Brian Randle grabbed the offensive rebound and fed Dee Brown, who hit two free throws to seal the victory.
Still, it was a sign of what was to come for Carolina. The freshman foursome scored all 29 of the team's second-half points, and the Smith Center crowd of 21,273 gave the Tar Heels a standing ovation as they left the court after the game.
Dec. 4, 2010: Carolina 75, No. 10 Kentucky 73: Carolina had fallen out of the rankings after a rough trip to Puerto Rico (losses to Minnesota and Vanderbilt), but this game marked the emergence of Tyler Zeller, who scored 27 points and went 6-for-6 from the free throw line in the final 90 seconds. As a team, the Tar Heels went 12-of-14 from the charity stripe over the final 3:38, which was especially handy because they did not make a field goal over the final six minutes.
John Henson added a double-double (13 points and 12 rebounds) and helped harass Terrence Jones into a 3-of-17 shooting performance.
Still, Kentucky had a chance to win. After Dexter Strickland hit a free throw to make it 75-73 with 5.6 seconds left, he missed the second. But Doron Lamb's halfcourt heave was an airball. "I'm ecstatic about the win," Roy Williams said after the game. "It was a hard fought, hand-to-hand combat kind of game."
The two teams met again in the east regional final to end the season, this time with a Wildcat victory. And while the Carolina-Kentucky series is on hiatus this year, Williams said recently on his radio show that he "thinks" it will return next season.