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The one that got away: How North Carolina blew its shot at Duke in the 1991 title game

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Thirty-one years after the loss that ended his college career, former North Carolina forward Pete Chilcutt still isn’t over it.

The most painful part isn’t even that a Tar Heels team stacked with future NBA first-round draft picks went cold against an opponent with lesser talent. The dream title-game scenario they flushed away is what haunts Chilcutt most.

Had heavily favored North Carolina defeated Kansas in the 1991 national semifinals, the Tar Heels’ first NCAA tournament matchup with hated rival Duke would have come two nights later in the national title game. North Carolina instead went home, allowing a Blue Devils team the Tar Heels beat by 22 in the ACC tournament to overpower Kansas and capture Mike Krzyzewski’s first national championship.

“I have thought about that so many times,” Chilcutt told Yahoo Sports. “Duke won another one the next year and really took off. That’s where it started for them. I think it would’ve been one of the epic finals of all time if we’d been able to get in there and perhaps change history. Who knows what would’ve happened to Duke down the road if we’d have been able to knock them off and not let them get that first title?”

Duke and North Carolina have combined to make 55 NCAA tournament appearances and reach 19 Final Fours since 1991, yet it has taken until now for them to finally cross paths on college basketball’s biggest stage. On Saturday night, it will be Blue Devils vs. Tar Heels from New Orleans in the highest-stakes game in this iconic rivalry’s history.

For North Carolina, it’s a chance to double down on the bragging rights attained when the Tar Heels spoiled Duke’s tribute to Mike Krzyzewski in his final home game. For Duke, it’s an opportunity to avenge that humiliating loss and move one step closer to sending Krzyzewski into retirement with a sixth national championship.

While North Carolina and Duke have frequently produced highly ranked teams in the same year, they haven’t often come close to facing off in the NCAA tournament. Only four other times have they advanced to the Elite Eight in the same year. Only in 1991 did they both reach the Final Four.

They might have played in the title game that year had Rick Fox not missed 17 of 22 shots, had Dean Smith not gotten ejected and Roy Williams not outcoached his mentor.

And, to hear the former Tar Heels tell it, had that Duke-Carolina matchup actually happened, the team that won the national championship that year might have worn a lighter shade of blue.

“We thought we were the better team,” former North Carolina forward George Lynch said. “We had respect for them, but we knew we could beat them.”

UNC’s Hubert Davis celebrates on the court with teammates after the Tar Heels defeated Temple 75-72 in NCAA East regional championship game on March 24, 1991. (AP Photo/Bill Kostroun)
UNC’s Hubert Davis celebrates on the court with teammates after the Tar Heels defeated Temple 75-72 in NCAA East regional championship game on March 24, 1991. (AP Photo/Bill Kostroun)

Duke, UNC and the real juggernaut

In October 1990, as the new college basketball season drew near, the national pecking order could be summed up in eight words: There was UNLV, and there was everyone else.

Jerry Tarkanian’s Rebels returned Larry Johnson, Stacey Augmon and the core of a team that won 35 games the previous year and blitzed Duke by 30 in the national title game. They opened the season No. 1 in both polls and a favorite to become college basketball’s first repeat champ since John Wooden’s UCLA dynasty.

Duke and North Carolina began the season in the next tier of teams behind UNLV. Both had aspirations of contending for the national title even though the Blue Devils were replacing three players who started alongside Christian Laettner and Bobby Hurley and the Tar Heels were coming off an underwhelming 13-loss season.

“That was the standard when I went to Carolina,” Lynch said. “We played for Final Fours and national championships. Anything else was a bust.”

As Duke and North Carolina sprinted out of the starting blocks fast and then ascended to the top of the ACC standings, both rivals kept track of the other’s progress. “That was your measuring stick,” Lynch said. “Everything they did, we watched. Everything we did, they watched.”

The first of two head-to-head matchups that season went to Duke. So did the second, clinching the ACC regular season title for the Blue Devils. The scoring of Laettner, playmaking of Hurley and versatility of a young Grant Hill were tough for North Carolina to handle, as was Duke’s trademark pressure defense.

When the Tar Heels got a third crack at Duke a week later in the ACC title game, they came out determined not to let the Blue Devils celebrate a third time at their expense. Behind 25 points from Rick Fox and turnover-free point guard play from King Rice, North Carolina raced out to an early lead and cruised to a 96-74 win.

"I honestly thought it was the best Duke team in modern days,” legendary North Carolina coach Dean Smith told reporters that day. "That's what makes it so satisfying."

Carolina Tar Heels joke after their 96-74 Atlantic Coast Conference tournament victory over Duke on March 10, 1991. Holding plaques are, from left: Pete Chilcutt (32); Rick Fox (44), tournament MVP; King Rice (21), and Hubert Davis (40). (AP Photo/Chuck Burton)
Carolina Tar Heels joke after their 96-74 Atlantic Coast Conference tournament victory over Duke on March 10, 1991. Holding plaques are, from left: Pete Chilcutt (32); Rick Fox (44), tournament MVP; King Rice (21), and Hubert Davis (40). (AP Photo/Chuck Burton)

Smith surely assumed he didn’t have to worry about that Duke team anymore after that game, but that turned out not to be the case. The Blue Devils ripped through the NCAA tournament’s Midwest region, winning all four games by at least 14 points. North Carolina followed a similar path of destruction in the East region, overwhelming its first three opponents before surviving a close call against Temple in the Elite Eight.

With unbeaten UNLV also blowtorching its way to Indianapolis, the Final Four featured three of the top six teams in the 1991 season’s final AP poll. On one side of the bracket were UNLV and Duke, the two teams that met in the previous year’s national title game. On the other were North Carolina and Kansas, who emerged from the Southeast region by upsetting higher-seeded Indiana and Arkansas.

Who did the Tar Heels expect to meet in the title game if they had managed to defeat Kansas?

“UNLV was so intimidating that year,” Chilcutt said. “So I don’t think we anticipated a Duke rematch.”

And yet …

“If you had taken a poll asking us who we wanted to play,” Lynch said, “we’d have said we wanted Duke.”

Why dream title matchup never happened

Ask North Carolina players from that team what happened against Kansas, and to a man they insist they didn’t overlook the Jayhawks. They swear that the Roy Williams-coached team had their respect, that they weren’t caught day-dreaming about a title-game showdown with Duke or a chance to take down mighty UNLV.

“We spent no time thinking about the possible matchup,” Hubert Davis said Tuesday. “Our focus and our attention was on Kansas.”

What derailed the Tar Heels was an off night from their three senior starters. Fox needed 22 shots to score 13 points. Chilcutt shot 2-for-8 from the field and Rice finished with more turnovers (three) than baskets (one).

A series of defensive stops fueled a North Carolina second-half surge that trimmed a 10-point deficit to one, but the Tar Heels never regained the lead. On one end of the floor, Fox left the potential go-ahead mid-range jumper short. On the other, Sean Tunstall buried a 3-pointer to ignite a quick 7-0 Kansas spurt that left North Carolina playing from behind again.

Davis’ 25 points in a losing effort was the lone bright spot for North Carolina. Mark Randall had 16 points and 11 rebounds against Chilcutt for Kansas, prompting a running joke from Davis over the years.

“He always tells me, ‘You got Mark Randall into the NBA!” Chilcutt said with a laugh. “They had some good players, but we just didn’t perform. We kind of laid an egg.”

To add to North Carolina’s misery, Smith was ejected in the final minute for just the third time in his storied career. With Kansas already up five and heading to the foul line for four free throws, Smith shook hands with Roy Williams and congratulated Kansas players on his way off the floor.

As Kansas finished off a 79-73 victory, Grant Hill recalled that Duke was in the RCA Dome Hallway, “getting ready to run out for our warmup.” Hill said that Krzyzewski brought the Blue Devils back to their locker room, concerned that the Tar Heels’ loss could diminish the hunger of his players.

“I don’t remember exactly what he said, but it was basically that he didn’t want us to have a built-in excuse to lose,” Hill said. “What I mean by that is the rivalry was so competitive you almost had a built-in out. They lost. Now it’s OK for us to lose.”

1991: Duke players Grant Hill and Christian Laettner high-five each other in celebration during the NCAA Championship against Kansas in 1991. Duke defeated Kansas 72-65. (Photo by Focus on Sport via Getty Images)
1991: Duke players Grant Hill and Christian Laettner high-five each other in celebration during the NCAA championship game against Kansas in 1991. Duke defeated Kansas 72-65. (Photo by Focus on Sport via Getty Images)

Of course, Duke didn’t lose. In fact, the Blue Devils went on to secure one of Krzyzewski’s most iconic victories. Christian Laettner exploded for 28 points to help the Blue Devils halt the Runnin’ Rebels’ 45-game win streak and pull off a stunning upset. Two nights later, Duke brushed aside Kansas to capture the program’s first national title.

“Once we won and beat Vegas, we didn’t care who we played,” Hill recalled. “We were so fired up and excited. That was a huge confidence boost and validator.”

Though the Laettner-Hurley-Hill core led Duke to back-to-back national titles in 1991 and 1992, there was a silver lining for North Carolina. Lynch’s class channeled its frustration into leading a title run of North Carolina’s own in 1993.

That it has taken so long for North Carolina and Duke to be part of the same Final Four again is a painful reminder to the 1991 Tar Heels of what might have been.

“As celebrated and successful as both programs have been,” Davis said, “for us to not have met in the Final Four is very surprising.”