Reveling in women's Tobacco Road rivalry

Updated: January 27, 2006, 8:48 PM ET
By Mechelle Voepel | Special to ESPN.com

Various "Homers" have written their own "Iliads" about the Duke-North Carolina rivalry in men's basketball. But there are some great tales of the Blue Devil-Tar Heel feud on the women's side, too.

Coretta Brown, Georgia Schweitzer
UNC's Coretta Brown is pressured by Duke's Georgia Schweitzer during a March 2000 game. UNC leads the series 39-28.

They'll meet Sunday night at 7 ET (ESPN2) in Cameron Indoor Stadium, which for the second time in a week will be the sold-out site of a No. 1 vs. No. 2 matchup. The media poll hasn't had a chance to reflect Monday's 22-point Duke victory over Tennessee, but the coaches' poll has.

So this time, it's No. 1 Duke vs. No. 2 North Carolina. Band-aids probably required.

Yeah, it usually gets rough when these two play each other. Just a little blood might accidentally (on purpose) be shed. You know that they don't like each other. You might not know, however, how MUCH they don't like each other.

Being a Midwesterner, I haven't witnessed every gory chapter of Duke-Carolina … but thanks to five and a half years working on the East Coast and satellite television, I've seen quite a few.

Among my favorite memories is still a 1996 game at Carmichael Auditorium, simply for the hilarious sight of a very young girl, just a couple of feet tall, waving a pom-pom, screaming and wearing a powder-blue shirt with these words emblazoned on the front: "Duke Makes Me Puke."

They get indoctrinated young as to which side they will hold the lifelong view of as good and which one is evil.

Over the years, the women's version of the Tobacco Road Rivalry has had its own jokes, heroes/villains (depending on what shade of blue you are wearing) and great games.

They first played each other in 1976; the Tar Heels won the initial seven matchups and 15 of the first 16. Duke would pick up a couple of victories here and there in the 1980s and early 1990s, but you could say the "Modern Era" of the rivalry began 11 years ago this week, Jan. 25, 1995.

The Tar Heels were then the defending national champions, and at that point had a six-game winning streak going in the series. In 1994, while Carolina had won it all, Duke's season had ended with a 15-point loss to Maryland in the ACC tournament.

Yet … there was a definite sense as 1995 began that the Blue Devils were on the verge of making a big move up in status. It was coach Gail Goestenkors' third season in Durham, and she finally had a little quickness, a little height and a lot of commitment from her players. Duke then was a pretty good offensive team, but nothing like the defensive powerhouse the program would turn into.

The Tar Heels -- with Charlotte Smith, Marion Jones, Tracy Reid and Stephanie Lawrence -- were big favorites going into that January 1995 game at Cameron. They had won 32 games in a row, with only two losses since the end of the 1993 season: both to Virginia in 1994.

Back then, Duke didn't yet charge for attendance and so the crowd was an estimate: 5,000. Which at the time was a mammoth gathering for the Duke women.

And with their well-executed offense, an up-to-the-task defensive effort (North Carolina shot just 35.8 percent) and the energy of the crowd, the Blue Devils hung with the Tar Heels right to the end. With the score tied, Duke had the ball out of bounds with just a few ticks left on the clock.

What happened then was captured on a photograph that would soon hang in Goestenkors' office.

Duke junior center Ali Day put up a turnaround 10-foot jumper. As time expired, it bounced around the rim once … twice … three times … and fell in. Many of the 5,000 -- or however many there actually were -- stormed the court. Duke had won, 74-72.

Of course, North Carolina would get its revenge. The Tar Heels beat the Blue Devils in the regular-season rematch at Carmichael, 82-57. And they poured it on Duke again in the ACC tournament title game, 95-70.

But about that title game … the Blue Devils were in it because they'd upset Virginia in overtime the day before, rallying from a 20-point halftime deficit. Duke sophomore guard Kira Orr had hit the shots that sent the game to OT and won it.

Later that March, Duke played in one of the epic NCAA Tournament women's games, losing 121-120 at Alabama in four overtimes. Day had 37 points in that game.

So Duke's program was on its way. Except … at its season opener against Virginia Commonwealth the next November, Duke drew only about 500 fans. So there was still a long way to go in terms of building consistent support.

That has gotten considerably better the last few years. Monday, during halftime of the sold-out Duke-Tennessee game, I spotted Orr in the crowd behind the Duke bench. I asked her what it felt like to see Cameron this way for a women's game.

"The feeling is so overwhelming, I almost don't have words for it," said Orr, who is now an assistant coach at Fordham. "There's just a lot of pride that I -- and other former players -- take in knowing we got the ball rolling here. Seeing the success of the program now, we feel like we still go through those games with them in spirit.

"That's what Coach G sold to me -- my decision came down to Duke or Stanford. Stanford was going for national championships then, and Duke was at the bottom of the ACC. But she said, 'You could be one of the first to get it started here.' And that's what pulled me to Duke."

Orr thinks back on the pivotal 1994-95 season and how much was accomplished then.

"We had the Carolina win here -- Ali Day's shot," Orr said, smiling. "Then the Virginia game and then the four overtimes at Alabama. All that happened in one season. And especially after that Alabama game, that's when we all thought, 'Hey, Duke can be good. We are good.' "

Meanwhile, North Carolina has not returned to the peak of that 1994 title season -- although the Tar Heels remain the only ACC women's hoops team to win a national championship. One of the best Tar Heel teams since then was the 1997 squad, which was an NCAA No. 1 seed and lost just three games. One of those losses, though, was a Sweet 16 upset by George Washington.

The next year, North Carolina had Tennessee on the ropes in the Elite Eight. But a rally put Tennessee into the Final Four and saved its 39-0 season.

Then in 1999, Duke beat Tennessee in the Elite Eight and went to the program's first Final Four. Duke has made two subsequent trips to the Final Four, but is seeking its first title.

Duke also took the reins in the rivalry with North Carolina in 1999. From then until 2004, the Blue Devils won 15 of 16, including 12 in a row. Duke was making Carolina fans puke over and over and over.

Last season, though, North Carolina got to stamp out a bit of that frustration, beating the Blue Devils all three times they met. The Tar Heels' season ended in the Elite Eight to eventual national champion Baylor.

A week ago, before the Duke-Tennessee game, both Goestenkors and Pat Summitt were asked if those were the two best teams in the country. Both answered they weren't sure about that at all, and mentioned North Carolina as candidate for No. 1.

"I know Carolina is breathing down our necks pretty well now," Goestenkors said.

Sunday, they'll each try to blow the other away. It's not just 'another' Duke-Carolina game, though. Then again, when these two meet, it never is.

Mechelle Voepel of The Kansas City Star is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. She can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com.

Mechelle Voepel joined ESPN.com in 1996 and covers women's college hoops, the WNBA, the LPGA, and additional collegiate sports for espnW.

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