Heat check: North Carolina-Duke rivalry as hot as ever, but for how much longer?

DURHAM, N.C. – In the midst of a strong start by underdog North Carolina Wednesday night, P.J. Hairston was fouled by Duke's Quinn Cook. On the way to the foul line, Hairston detoured by the Blue Devils bench to bark something.

I'm reasonably certain he was not expressing happy birthday wishes to coach Mike Krzyzewski.

On his first day as a 66-year-old, Krzyzewski showed some quickness in response. He sprang off the bench and did some barking of his own at official Karl Hess, who then spoke to Carolina's Leslie McDonald, who then spoke to Hairston.

The likely message: Pipe down and play.

Both sides did eventually pipe down and play, and the game was pretty good. Carolina played harder and tougher than it has this season. Duke, ranked first in the USA Today Coaches Top 25, exerted itself during a 12-minute stretch of the second half to take control and then hung on. Duke won, 73-68.

It was not a classic installment. Not all of them can be.

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It is not a great year for North Carolina, which is 16-8, just 6-5 in the Atlantic Coast Conference, and unranked. Not all of them can be.

But the matchup can still reach deep inside and stir the fires of the participants. Every meeting, every year.

It was that flash of the old Army hard-ass Krzyzewski, jumping off the bench to answer the challenge of a Carolina player, that showed the deep reservoir of passion this rivalry has. And what it may miss in the not-too-distant future.

Math, common sense and biology dictate that Mike Krzyzewski doesn't have a whole bunch more of these Duke-North Carolina games left. Nobody's suggesting he's ready to retire, but neither is anyone saying he'll pull a Paterno and still be coaching into his 80s.

And on the other side sits Roy Williams, age 62 and looking it postgame Wednesday night. Williams had surgery for a non-cancerous kidney tumor in September and has come back fine. But  it served as another reminder that the two principal figures in this riveting rivalry are much closer to the end of their runs than to the beginning.

It's been 32 years since Krzyzyewski was introduced to the Duke-Carolina feud with a 15-point loss to Dean Smith in old Carmichael Auditorium. Wednesday night, his record nudged back above .500 against the Heels at 38-37.

"We won the game," Krzyzewski said. "God bless America."

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God bless Duke-Carolina. It's not just a TV creation, despite the efforts of ESPN to turn it into the only college basketball rivalry worth hyperventilating about. It's a real phenomenon, and it's been good to the sport.

Krzyzewski is the guy who built Duke into something powerful enough to battle Smith's Carolina dynasty on even footing. They combined to make this eight-mile stretch Tobacco Road between Durham and Chapel Hill the center of the college basketball universe. Both men had two national titles at the time Smith retired in 1997.

Williams is the true heir to Smith, after short stints from Bill Guthridge and Matt Doherty. Ol' Roy has won two titles at Carolina, and Krzyzewski has won two more since Smith hung up his whistle.

Both men feel the rivalry in their souls. It was an organic thing for Williams, who grew up in the state, went to Carolina and coached under Smith. It was learned by K.

Hopefully both appreciate it more with each passing installment, as the end gets closer than the beginning.

"After I was here a few years, I knew we were lucky," Krzyzewski said. "We were lucky to be a 50-50 partner with them in this great event. I appreciate it.

"On your birthday – and I don't want to get into religion – but you want to thank God. He's been pretty good to me and my family. And part of that is being in this rivalry."

It was Krzyzewski's power and passion that have made Cameron Indoor Stadium what it was Wednesday night, and what it is every time the Tar Heels pay a visit: a madhouse. The amount of body paint worn and the number of vocal chords taxed to the cracking point are at annual highs for this game. Carolina brings out the inner Crazy in the Cameron Crazies.

"The atmosphere was insane," said freshman Rasheed Sulaimon, playing in his first Duke-Carolina game. "It was so loud in there, and we needed every bit of the fans tonight."

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Said center Mason Plumlee: "This game is so different than any other game. You have chills before the game. It's crazy, so you almost have to catch your breath after that first wind and just kind of settle into the game."

It will be the same at the Dean Dome next month in the return game. Each fan base gets its chance to inflict its will on the opposing team, and each team gets the chance to shut them up and go home with a win.

But the clock is ticking on the Hall of Famers on the benches.

Will the intensity still be there when Krzyzewski and Williams are gone? Will both sides still get their hackles up over every sentence of trash talk and every slight, real or perceived? Yeah, probably. Duke and North Carolina should remain image-obsessed, Cadillac programs for decades to come, attracting many of the best players and brightest coaches available, and the imperative will still exist to keep pace with each other.

But will it still be like this, where the coaches feel it in their guts and cherish the chance to beat each other's brains out? Maybe not.

Which is why we should appreciate the meetings these two giants have left.

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