By Adam Lucas
ROW D—Slide in here. This isn’t going to be comfortable.
Over the next three hours, you’re going to become very close friends with these 75 Carolina fans shoehorned in behind the Tar Heel bench at Cameron Indoor Stadium.
The seats don’t have backs, which means your knees now form the backrest of Tony Bradley’s father in front of you. They did install cushions on the old wooden benches a few years ago, but it doesn’t really matter, because you won’t be sitting down much anyway.
From here, you can see—well, kind of, or at least when Mr. Bradley sits down—the greatest rivalry in sports. The Cameron bass is cranked to nightclub levels and somewhere DJ Khaled gives a dejected sigh as he sees the dancing that currently accompanies “All I Do Is Win.”
Within a dozen seats of this one, on the same row, are Brice Johnson, Al Wood and Phil Ford, three individuals with their jerseys in the rafters occupying that same tiny square of bleacher real estate that you do. It doesn’t quite seem right. Last year, Johnson was busy delivering 18 points and 21 rebounds in this same building. Ford went 3-1 here. Wood engineered an upset of a top-ranked Duke team here in 1980.
Eight minutes into the game, the first two Duke students are kicked out of the game from a couple rows behind us after giving us some colorful suggestions on what we could do with ourselves. It is a triumphant moment.
Late in the first half, Tony Bradley misses his first of two free throws (let’s not talk about the free throws). Across the court, the students begin chanting, “You can’t shoot!”
His father chuckles. “You can’t shoot,” he repeats to someone who asks what they’re chanting at his son.
Bradley drills the second free throw. His father grins.
What you learn is that it’s important to turn sideways, because that creates some much-needed air. The scary fact is there is more room over here than there is on press row, where the students stand virtually on the back of your chair.
At least over here behind the bench, we’re all friends. These six dozen people are your best friends in the world for this evening, and when Carolina takes a 60-59 lead with 12:36 left, prompting a Mike Krzyzewski timeout (you can’t really see the Duke head coach from here, other than when he makes his frequent video board appearances), you are high-fiving people four bodies away from you.
At this point, Mr. Bradley turns around. “Can you see OK?” he asks.
I can see the scoreboard, and it says 64-59, Carolina, so that’s pretty much all I need to see. Just keep doing what you’re doing. Everyone…just…keep…doing.
You know how it ends. From here, sometimes you don’t even see which Blue Devil releases the infernal three-pointers, but you know from the rotation on the ball that it’s probably Grayson Allen, and so it probably goes in the basket.
The Cameron stands, other than this little pocket behind the bench, are in full-on celebration mode, and before Joel Berry even goes down the stairs to the UNC locker room (to get there, you have to pass by, in order, J.J. Redick, Austin Rivers and Danny Ferry--it's like a nightmare of Dukeness), he’s barking, “It’s one game!” at his teammates. He is right. Now the season begins.
Carolina has been in this exact situation many, many times before. In the Roy Williams era, the Tar Heels are now 3-11 in the first meeting of the season against Duke, and have won just once in the last eight initial battles. But they are 8-5 in the return game, which this year will come on March 4 in the Smith Center.
It’s a baffling stat. Same two teams. Usually just a matter of weeks separating the games. In a couple of examples (like tonight, when Isaiah Hicks didn’t play, or in 2008 when Ty Lawson wasn’t available), that first loss might have something to do with personnel. More often, though, it’s a headscratcher like 2005 or 2012 or 2015 or 2016.
Three Tar Heel alums with ample experience were asked to explain the split, because I don’t have any good answers.
“Coach is able to go back and analyze the first game and make adjustments headed into the second meeting,” said Deon Thompson.
“Coach Williams makes adjustments,” said Bobby Frasor, who has had the benefit of seeing those tweaks both as a player and on the staff. “It always seems like all of his teams peak at the right time and the rotations are all in place.”
“I do think we are typically the best team in the league down the stretch of the season,” said Marcus Paige. “Which would lend to us being better the second time around.”
That second time around is three weeks away. The irony of the first meeting with Duke is it always gets more attention than the second, but it has much less to do with the ultimate verdict on the season than the second. In the last decade, the team that’s won the second UNC-Duke game has gone further in the NCAA Tournament in nine of ten seasons.
This one? It’s one game. It's one game they desperately tried to win, one that would've given them firm control of the ACC, one that was winnable and could've sent all those painted jokers home miserable...but one game.
The second one? It’s for a season.