After getting blown out by 26 against Miami on Sunday, expectations for Wednesday night were low…well, as low as possible for a game against Duke. Rivalry games are special, and no rivalry is more special than Carolina-Duke. The records don’t matter, the rankings don’t matter; nothing really matters except those forty minutes on the court. Each game is the manifestation of generations of mutual hatred, and in our extreme loathing of that school eight miles down the road, we consistently anticipate winning, no matter the odds.

But boy, did the odds seem against us on Wednesday. Gathered with roughly ten of my good friends in the back of the Varsity Theater on Franklin Street at about 8:15 PM, I was a bundle of nervous apprehension. It seemed a potential recipe for disaster: A young, inconsistent Carolina team that has struggled on the road going into Cameron Indoor to take on a Blue Devils squad that was ranked either number one or number two, depending on which poll you prefer. The theater grew marginally more crowded as game time drew closer, but the fear of getting destroyed and having a depressing walk home probably kept students from going out on a chilly weekday evening. As tip-off neared, the theater was maybe half-full and fairly quiet, providing a stark contrast to the Cameron Crazies on screen that were screaming and yelling (obscenities at the Carolina players, I’m sure).

And right at that moment, Twitter alerted me to a shocking surprise: “@KButter5 Varsity theater. we live.” After doing a quick scan, we quickly realized that Kendall Marshall, the former Tar Heel point guard/legend and a first-round pick in the most recent NBA Draft, was sitting alone at the front of the theater. Naturally, we did what any self-respecting UNC basketball fans would do and asked to sit with him during the game. He graciously obliged, perhaps because the majority of our contingent was female, but graciously nonetheless.

Taking in the biggest game of the year thus far with Kendall was an amazing experience. Though we tried not to bother him too much, it was hard not to basically interrogate him given his experience with the rivalry and his special place in Carolina basketball history. With Cameron rocking per usual, we asked him if it was really as hard a place to play as people make it out to be. Apparently so, as he replied that, “It’s just so loud. You don’t even understand. I could be sitting next to you talking just like this, and not only could you not hear me, but I couldn’t even hear myself.”

As the game began and we settled in, I did my best to restrain my curiosity with the campus celebrity and to just watch the game. The Tar Heels were making that easy for the first time all season. In arguably the biggest coaching move of the year, Roy decided to start a four-guard lineup against Duke, with PJ Hairston replacing Desmond Hubert. Part of the team’s early success may be attributable to the adrenaline rush of playing in such a big game, but the lineup switch appeared to greatly improve floor spacing and really open up the offense. Guys had lanes to attack the basket, which gave shooters the room to catch kick-outs and shoot, which in turn got defenders to bite on pump fakes, opening up more lanes…I think you get the picture. The end result was a number of early dunks and threes for the Tar Heels that fueled a hot start. Meanwhile, Duke struggled at the offensive end, hitting just one three-pointer in the first half. Even inside, where Duke should have conceivably had an advantage against a small UNC lineup, star forward Mason Plumlee struggled against the suddenly-spirited defense of James Michael McAdoo. Fifteen minutes of solid basketball combined with five mediocre ones as the half was drawing to a close left Carolina with a four point lead at the break.

Everyone knows what happened in the second half, as Duke eventually started knocking down outside shots and the Heels had difficulty scoring, especially from the free throw line down the stretch. There were some bad calls from the referees, to be sure, but you couldn’t expect anything less with the game being played in Durham. We had every opportunity to win, but just couldn’t take full advantage, which made it particularly frustrating to lose. Still, I was happy to be upset about the reasons that we actually lost, as opposed to the reasons about which I was expecting to be upset. I’m not a big believer in the idea of moral victories, but this was one if there ever was. UNC showed a great deal of heart and a lot of promise heading into March, with PJ’s emphatic dunk at the close of the game serving as a warning to future opponents that this is really a different team from the one that started the year.

As the final score flashed on the bottom of the screen, I couldn’t help but allow my thoughts to drift back to Kendall. I found myself surprised by the degree to which he was an ordinary fan. He raised his arms in anticipation of threes going in. He groaned in frustration at missed jumpers and layups. He cursed out the officials for not calling violations on Duke. He superstitiously told everyone to stay in the same seats after halftime to maintain the good karma we had for the first half. He jumped out of his seat on McAdoo’s ridiculous reverse dunk near the start of the second half, whooping and hollering in excitement. He was nervous and tense during the final minutes, urging his boys to play defense, to score, to push the ball, to find a way to win. He was on edge for every play, just like every other Carolina fan. Most importantly, when it was all over, he stood up with everyone else, put his arms around our shoulders, and sang the alma mater. Truly, in that moment, he was one of us.

I’ve written previously about the bond between the Carolina basketball team and the student body. It’s hard to define it or explain it to someone that hasn’t experienced it, but it exists. You could feel it in the theater that night as we shouted “Go to hell, Duke” at the top of our lungs, even if no one could hear us. It was palpable again on Saturday at the Dean Dome as we applauded Tyler Zeller in recognition of his jersey in the rafters, honored Lennie Rosenbluth for his impressive efforts in the NCAA Tournament, and cheered thunderously for Marshall, John Henson, and Tyler Hansbrough when they were shown on the Jumbotron.

There was even something in the air as PJ Hairston continued his ascent to leadership with a spectacular game against Virginia. As he was sparking the second-half charge to clinch a huge conference win, you could feel fans adopting him as a hero, preparing a place for him in Carolina lore. It’s an extremely unique relationship, one that only takes place when fans and players come together just so. That’s why together, we are Carolina.

image by todd melet