The dean of college basketball moved a game closer to one of the most enduring records in amateur sport on Sunday afternoon.
In a contest that swung like the single stroke of a school marm's clock, the North Carolina Tar Heels swept passed the Duke Blue Devils before the end of the first half and never fell back. A full-court pass from Ed Cota to Antawn Jamison and the lay-up that followed put North Carolina ahead for the first time with 5:24 left in the half. The lead never changed hands again. And when the clock ran out, coach Dean Smith and North Carolina posted a 91-to-85 victory over arch-rival Duke.
Sometime during 1997, Dean Smith will win more games than any coach in the history of college basketball. With Sunday's season finale against Duke, he enters the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) tournament with 872 career victories - four wins short of the record set by Adolph Rupp at the University of Kentucky in 1972.
With a second-place finish in league play and a berth in the NCAA tournament almost certain, the sixth ranked Tar Heels could lift him past Coach Rupp's mark by March 15 or 16 (the second round of the NCAA tournament.)
The 1996-97 season, his 36th as head coach at North Carolina, has already brought Smith two impressive records. The Tar Heels have now won 20 or more games during the last of 27 seasons - an NCAA record. North Carolina's second place finish marks the 33rd straight time his teams have finished third or better in league play - an ACC record.
An NCAA tournament bid will give him a record 23 consecutive invitations to the Big Dance.
"Coaches such as Dean Smith from North Carolina and Mike Krzyzewski from Duke set these two basketball programs apart from programs at other schools," says Johny Moore, publisher of Basketball America. "A lot of coaches know X's and O's, but Krzyzewski and Smith know how to motivate their players."
Located 10 miles apart - across North Carolina's Tobacco Road, Duke and North Carolina have cultivated remarkably comparable programs. Both Smith and Krzyzewski have won two national championships. Krzyzewski's win-loss record matches Smith's during the first 16 years of his career - both coaches average nearly 24 victories per season. And both schools graduate nearly 95 percent of their varsity basketball lettermen. Three seniors from each squad will graduate this year.
Similarities between the two coaches, and the Tar Heels - Blue Devils 1996-97 seasons abound.
This winter, the Blue Devils placed first in the ACC, while the Tar Heels tied the Deamon Deacons of Wake Forest for second. North Carolina finished the year sixth in the CNN/coaches poll, while Duke finished seventh.
The Blue Devils beat North Carolina at Cameron Indoor Stadium on Jan. 29 by seven points. The Tar Heels defeated Duke at the Dean Smith Center this Sunday by six points.
"It was a physical game. Every player gave his all, said Coach Smith shortly after the rematch. "We are happy to have won the game. Duke has a tremendous coaching staff and tremendous players this year."
"After winning the regular season championship, we were afraid of losing our edge," adds Krzyzewski. "We knew that Carolina was ready to go. Certainly their fans reacted as if the game were a seasonal championship."
"The rivalry between Duke and North Carolina is unparalleled in college basketball," says Duke co-captain and senior Jeff Capel. "It's a special game. A game players love to play and fans love to watch even if they're not from Duke or North Carolina."
"I'm elated with the outcome of the game," says Matthew Stowe, a recent graduate of the University of North Carolina, moments after the final horn sounded. "Most of the people I work with - including my boss, graduated from Duke. Tomorrow morning, I can return the generosity they showed me last January when Duke beat us 80 to 73."