DEAN E. SMITH CENTER/ CHAPEL HILL—Two seasons ago, Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski had a habit of saying. “It’s what we do.” He’d make sure to work this little phrase into post-game press conferences with regularity, and he could use it in the context of a number of different things. It was as if he was circling some ineffable something by returning to the phrase when there was an event or a feeling or a concept that needed to be acknowledged but had no precise definition. Maybe it was a sliding notion, or rather, maybe “it” was a sliding notion.
Last night, after Duke lost an 11-point lead in the second half and then the game to North Carolina, Krzyzewski returned to “it” for a while in an unusually long and searching nine-minute press talk. And in working out what was on his mind about the loss, he came pretty close to defining “it.” It is an energy that exists somewhere in the contested, intimate, volatile space between North Carolina and Duke. Close the distance, put them on the same court, and the teams’ mutual proximity to it sets it on fire.
These two programs are built on it. They share it. Their eight national championships since 1982 partake of it. They egg each other on with it, raise each others’ games with it. It powers all of college basketball. It is an exhausting and inexhaustible resource: it sets coaches on players on an endless quest to be better, reach higher. It is Duke and Carolina, Carolina and Duke, and it is by now bigger than both of them. And if that sounds a lot like love, well, maybe sports, not music, are the food. In any case, play on.
Krzyzewski tried any number of ways of getting at “it.” He used the word “life,” landing on it hard: “We didn’t have life.” And then: “We just didn’t have that spark. The anger. The emotion… We didn’t have the life that we needed to have.”
Moments later: “The emotion of being in this game, and the respect of being in this game, should carry you through. I thought we played young. And we didn’t have the life. There was something missing.”
“We didn’t have it. Whatever the hell that thing is, in the second half it wasn’t in our huddle. Carolina had it. You hope that both teams have it.”
Someone asked Krzyzewski how to regain “it” in time for Duke’s clash-of-the-titans rematch with Syracuse tomorrow, and he decided to go for some comedy: “I’m gonna tweet and text, and we’re gonna try to have, like, a contest. Maybe we can find it. We’ve had it.” When it’s too hard to face, you protect yourself with jokes. Then he added: “Even if you do have it, you can get beat.”
That may be true when Duke takes on Syracuse. But when Duke and Carolina play, the team that has it wins. Think back to the last time Duke played at Chapel Hill in the month of February. The Tar Heels, who were the better team that year, were strolling toward a fairly easy win, but they were doing that without “it”: without “the anger… the emotion”—say it, the love—that exists between these two teams. Duke seized it late in the game, and pulled off one of their greatest wins in the history of this great rivalry when Austin Rivers nailed an instantly famous, buzzer-beating three-pointer.
Which team is “better” is really not all that important, in the same way that it doesn’t matter which of you has the rationally valid side in an argument. It’s which team has “it.” Last night, it sat mostly unclaimed for about 25 minutes. A few minutes into the second half, Duke built the largest lead of the game, 11 points, but they were doing it simply because they were the better team—and they are, no question, more skilled overall than the Tar Heels.
UNC head coach Roy Williams decided to try some zone defenses at this point, including one UNC hadn’t played this season, a 1-3-1. Krzyzewski would later dismiss the reporter-suggested effect of this zone-mixing tactic. He had already lamented Duke’s strange inability to make easy, open shots throughout the game; in fact, he started his commentary with that, eventually saying that when you don’t have “it,” you can offset that lack by making shots, simple as that. (It’s a cousin of UNC head coach Roy WIlliams’ “everything looks better when the ball goes in the basket.”)
Duke didn’t make shots. While Carolina zoned in, Duke zoned out. The Blue Devils scored just two points in a nine-minute stretch: two points in nine minutes from an elite offense, the second best scoring machine in the country according to Ken Pomeroy’s measurements. Some of Duke’s trouble scoring had to do with North Carolina’s defense, which was characteristically strong and active, but Duke missed a lot of open shots. (Roy Williams said after the game that they knew Duke would have to miss some open shots in order for the Tar Heels to win.)
North Carolina isn’t a great scoring team by any means, but Duke’s freeze gave them confidence—confidence, also an iteration of “it.” Krzyzewski spent some time chewing on that word and idea later, too. The Tar Heels had an extra helping of it last night, a huge one: their fans. The Dean Dome was probably as loud as it ever has been. This game had been postponed a tantalizing, agonizing week. “It” built up and built up and built up. After the game, while fans stormed the court—this was UNC’s national championship, no doubt—Roy Williams got at that feeling of relentless mounting pressure: “I love kids who just keep coming at you, keep coming at you, keep coming at you.” This game just kept coming at you.
In the past, participants from both schools have tried to downplay the importance of the rivalry. “I told my kids it was just one game,” Williams said of his post-game locker room talk to his players. But that was the only attempt at lowering the stakes of the game. Both he and Krzyzewski spoke candidly about the realness of the rivalry—about “it,” essentially.
“It” was what allowed UNC, a bad free throw shooting team, to make 19 of its final 23 free throws, improbably, including all of its final 10 down the stretch. It was what had Duke, a generally pretty good free throw shooting team, making only 7-12 of them. It was what allowed UNC’s senior shooting guard Leslie McDonald, who has been misfiring for most of the year, to score a game-high 21 points on 9-12 shooting in his final home game versus Duke. It’s why Duke, a great three-point shooting team, shot 5-22 from out there last night. They missed some open ones. Were they tired? Perhaps, but part of why they were tired was that they had ceded “it” to North Carolina.
The lore has long been that Mike Krzyzewski came to Duke determined to bring the program up to UNC’s elite level. Certainly Carolina was a strong program in the 1970s, reaching multiple Final Fours. But they had not won a championship under Dean Smith, who had acquired a can’t-win-the-big-one reputation by the time Krzyzewski took over the Blue Devils in 1980. Duke had been to the title game, too, just two years before Krzyzewski’s arrival, but lost. Both programs were in the upper echelon, but neither had reached the summit in a long time.
In Krzyzewski’s second season, Dean Smith finally won his first championship. This, not Carolina’s blueblood “history,” was the galvanizing force: the sword driven into the stone. Krzyzewski was already here when UNC won its first championship in a generation. So was Roy Williams, as Smith’s assistant. It was after 1982 that the rivalry commenced. Since then, nothing either program has done has been done without some notion of the other. They are so much more than rivals; they are not rivals. They are mutual shadows, and they are the screens on which their shadows are projected, and the beam of light that projects them.
“You would rather throw stones at a mirror?” Rumi wrote. “I am your mirror, and here are the stones.” I heard that at a wedding. “i carry your heart with me(i carry it in/my heart)i am never without it(anywhere/i go you go,my dear;and whatever is done/by only me is your doing,my darling).” I heard that at a wedding, too.
This marriage is great, and these games are so often great, not because Duke and North Carolina are having lovers’ quarrels. They are more than lovers. “Out of the quarrel with others we make rhetoric,” Yeats said. “Out of the quarrel with ourselves we make poetry.”
Next verse at Cameron Indoor Stadium in two weeks and a day.