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Storied college basketball rivalry tilts to Tar Heels – for now

The campuses of North Carolina and Duke University are eight miles apart. But the competition between the two is much closer, even if Tyler Hansbrough's team has surged ahead of late.

By Erik SpanbergCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / March 28, 2008

The University of North Carolina's Deon Thompson smiled amid taunts and jeers by Duke University fans during a basketball game in Durham, N.C., March 8. Duke lost the game at the buzzer.

Ellen ozier/reuters

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Charlotte, N.C.

The University of North Carolina's win over Virginia Tech earlier this month at Charlotte Bobcats Arena had a storybook ending, but it was not even the highlight of the day for fans of the basketball powerhouse.

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Sure, consensus national player of the year and Tar Heels star Tyler Hansbrough hit the game-winner with 0.8 seconds left, slicing through three players along the baseline to grab a rebound. And, yes, the win propelled North Carolina into the Atlantic Coast Conference finals a day later, where a win over Clemson gave the school a record 17th tournament championship in the 56-year-old event.

Nice as all of that was, the real treat for Tar Heel Nation came two hours later, when bitter rival Duke University and coach Mike Krzyzewski suffered a loss to Clemson in the tournament's other semifinal game.

Duke and its fans took another hit last Saturday when West Virginia bounced them out of the NCAA tournament in a 73-67 upset.

Some of the state's ardent hoops fans might have been salivating at the prospect – however remote – of a Duke-North Carolina meeting in the tourney's final April 8. The storied rivalry between the two campuses has tilted toward the Tar Heels. For now.

What endures beneath the Carolina sun, undiminished by the vagaries of any one season, is the basketball passion that rules Tobacco Road through every winter and spring.

Chapel Hill, home of the Tar Heels, and Duke's Durham campus are eight miles apart, but their men's basketball teams are closer than that, as evidenced by both schools spending much of the season ranked among the nation's Top 5. When the NCAA Tournament started last week, North Carolina, now led by Smith disciple Roy Williams, carried a No. 1 seed while Duke's Blue Devils entered at No. 2.

Coach Dean Smith established North Carolina as a national power during a 36-year tenure that included 879 wins, 11 trips to the Final Four, and two national championships. He retired in 1997.

Duke rang up intermittent success in the 1960s and 1970s, but became a true power only after Krzyzewski's arrival in 1980. His résumé includes 10 Final Four berths and three national titles. At his current pace, Krzyzewski, known as Coach K, will pass Bobby Knight, his coaching mentor, as the game's all-time-wins leader during the 2011-12 season.

"It's an unbelievable rivalry," says Bobby Cremins, a former Atlantic Coast Conference rival of both schools during his years coaching Georgia Tech. "When I was coaching, there was one game I never missed: Duke-North Carolina. If I was out recruiting, I'd make my wife tape it."

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