"What are you writing?" the lady in front of me asked.
We were sitting in the Smith Center around 8:30, and I had a (very nerdy) black pocket notebook that I carry with me everywhere at games. I write down big plays. I write down turning points. I write down the things I want to remember because things tend to happen on nights like this that you do not want to forget.
The first thing you noticed is that this was not a typical Smith Center crowd. It was not even a typical Smith Center UNC-Duke crowd. This was a crowd that had been waiting through a snowstorm and an eight-day delay and two years of home losses to these guys from Durham, but it felt like a whole bunch more than that.
Some crowds are reactive. This one was proactive. This one cheered for everything. This one stood for everything. The reason we still go to games in the era of high definition television and expensive parking and home projection screens is for that very rare occasion, the one that may not even happen once a season, when you are part of a crowd that feels like they had an impact on the game. The chance to say, when you are telling this story in a few years: Leslie McDonald had 21 points and James Michael McAdoo had 10 rebounds and those other 21,750 of us, we helped, too.
This was that kind of crowd, and I wrote that down.
"Our crowd was sensational the whole game," Roy Williams said. "Even when we were down, they were into it."
And the Tar Heels were down for most of the game. But then Williams started switching defenses, and it turned into one of the best coaching battles there has ever been at the Smith Center. Two Hall of Famers, each scheming, each reacting to the other while also trying to come up with that one first strike that would turn the game.
After playing mostly man-to-man with a light sprinkling of 3-2 zone, Williams went to a 1-3-1 zone out of a timeout with 11:37 remaining. "We haven't played a 1-3-1 since I've been here," Marcus Paige said. "We just put it in a couple of weeks ago."
Duke was noticeably staggered, as if trying to negotiate a snowy highway, and missed a three-pointer. On the next possession, they missed again. And on the next possession, Mike Krzyzewski called a timeout.
What do you think he did during that timeout? Told his team how to beat a 1-3-1, of course. Then they came back out on the court and were greeted by a Carolina defense playing...man-to-man.
Duke missed again. And somewhere, Dean Smith smiled.
With under five minutes to play and a 60-58 Duke lead, Williams again called for the 1-3-1, with J.P. Tokoto at the top of the defense contesting everything. Again, it worked, and the Devils missed a rushed three-pointer. After a fortuitous fast break that ended with a game-tying McAdoo power drive, Krzyzewski called another timeout.
This was as good as it can possibly get in college basketball, and I wrote that down. Hall of Famer Williams throwing out an unexpected wrinkle. Hall of Famer Krzyzewski calling timeout to beat it. Hall of Famer Williams countering his counter.
Oh--and Hall of Famer Williams forcing Duke to burn two timeouts that they dearly needed later in the game.
We stood up for most of the second half. No one told anyone to sit down, probably because everyone's energy was solely and completely focused on telling the Tar Heels to "BOX OUT" and "MAKE A FREE THROW" and "STOP THE DRIVE." They needed us to tell them these things. We were helping.
At the end, after McDonald had made some clutch shots and Paige had made some ridiculous shots, there was just Nate Britt, a freshman, on the free throw line. And Nate Britt knows exactly how you felt.
"I was here last year," Britt said of the decisive loss to Duke when the Devils raced to a 14-0 lead. "And I was here the year before that when Austin Rivers hit the shot. I definitely thought about those games. The whole time, I was thinking, 'We have to win this game.'"
Those last two years, Britt had been merely a recruit and a spectator. Now he had a chance to affect the outcome, so he did. He made four of four essential free throws that sealed the win. A freshman did that.
"I've shot those same free throws at least a million times," Britt said. "After practice, I can't leave until I hit at least ten in a row."
By the time Britt's last free throw swished cleanly through, it was clear what was about to happen. The Carolina-Duke game at the Smith Center is one of the highlights of the school year for every single student at the University of North Carolina. These visitors from Duke had forced them to wait eight days for it.
Do you know what happens when you make college students wait? This is what happens:
"I could feel the floor shaking," said Desmond Hubert, who played 11 important minutes.
I am just glad to know that the shaking was not limited to my section, where I had just high-fived my new friend the inquisitive notebook lady after a Britt free throw, and I wrote that down.
For the last 60 seconds of the game, the crowd pushed toward the court. Anyone who was there knows it. Some courts are stormed out of a sense of obligation. This court was going to be stormed out of a sense of jubilation.
My eight-year-old son sits on the basket beside the Tar Heel bench--the one in front of the risers. His official title is ballboy and sweat wiper but his real role is to get, as one person put it on Twitter, "SO TURNT UP!!!" In the car on the way to the game, he asked me, "Do you think if we win the students will storm the court?"
They probably will, I told him. And if they do, you should climb up on the basket support and let them go by.
"And then can I go out there?" he asked me.
"Yes," I said. This is not textbook parenting, but in 1992 I stormed the court after the Bloody Montross game and I have never, ever forgotten it.
As time expired and the students started deservedly streaming onto the court, I looked down towards the goal, and there was Asher, crouched on the basket support, simultaneously looking terrified and thrilled. It was 11:15 p.m. on a school night and Carolina had just beaten Duke and the students were storming the court and it was completely obvious that he was never, ever going to forget that moment.
My wife texted me: "Is Asher OK?"
I wrote back: "I think this might be the best day of his life."
As he left the court, Desmond Hubert was crying. "It was such a great feeling," he said. "I've never felt like that, like I'm so happy that I'm crying." He said it with a little bit of wonder, like he couldn't believe that one basketball game could do that to a person.
But it can, and I wrote that down.
With the students still completely covering the court, Jump Around played over the arena PA system, and everyone did their best Danny Green impersonation. It was a purely unscripted moment of joy, and it felt like it might not get much better than that. Except it did, because then played the alma mater, and strangers put their arms around strangers, and everyone shouted the key parts with as much voice as they had left, the "PRICELESS GEM" and "TAR HEEL DEAD" and, well, you know exactly how it ends.
The Tar Heel locker room was a madhouse. "No one," Hubert said, "was safe." A few minutes later, as McAdoo prepared to meet the media, director of player development Eric Hoots happened to walk by. Before the game, Hoots had sat on the bench, tapping his foot on the hardwood. "My heart is beating so fast right now," he said. It was 6:30 p.m., two and a half hours before the game.
Five hours later, he still had that same energy. "Hoots," McAdoo called to him. "By the way, you head-butted me in there," and he pointed towards the locker room.
And suddenly I realized that I was really, really tired. It had been a long game and a long wait to see that game and all at once, like about 1 a.m. on New Year's, it suddenly occurred to me that I was exhausted. Most of the players were gone and the night was ending.
Paige had just finished his interviews and was walking to take a shower. He had played a game-high 37 minutes in a sweltering Smith Center. His jersey was untucked and he had just a slight old man gait to the way he was moving. You know how you felt after cheering at the game? Paige played in the game.
"Hey, Marcus," said a voice. It was Anthony Hernandez, a 12-year-old from Morganton who'd spent the day with Paige two weeks ago. Hernandez has muscular dystrophy and is in a wheelchair, but he was wearing a Tar Heel jersey and his favorite Carolina hat because it was his first time at the Smith Center for a game.
And then, Paige changed. His fatigue turned into an ear-to-ear smile. He put his arm on Anthony's shoulder and asked him what he thought of the game. He bent down, so they could look eye-to-eye. Anthony asked Paige to sign his jersey, and of course Marcus did, because he is Marcus Paige.
You are going to think this next part didn't really happen but I promise you that it did. Marcus and Anthony talked a little bit about the game, and Paige said he was going to take a shower. He squeezed Anthony on the shoulder. Anthony looked up at him, and there was some of the purest admiration in his eyes that I have ever seen anywhere.
"Marcus," Anthony said, "you are the best."
I did not write down that part, because some things are completely and totally unforgettable.
Adam Lucas is the editor of CAROLINA.