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Looking Back: Duke’s Win Over UNC In 1978 Was Huge And A Key To Duke’s Return To Prominence

NCAA Photos Archive
Mike Gminski, shown here against Kentucky, helped make Duke a formidable team

Duke defeated North Carolina 76-74 on January 22, 1972. It was a memorable win, for several reasons. Robby West hit the game winner, with a few seconds left. It’s not every day that a player who ends his career with 142 points beats his biggest rival, especially when that rival is ranked third nationally and is led by a player who would go on to lead the NBA in scoring three times; that would be Robert McAdoo.

This also was the game in which Duke Indoor Stadium officially became Cameron Indoor Stadium during a halftime ceremony.

Although a huge upset on paper, it also came at the end of an era in which Duke routinely beat North Carolina at home. From 1961 through 1972 Duke lost only twice at home to the Tar Heels, 1965 and 1967. Billy Cunningham and Larry Miller were 1-2 at Duke, Charlie Scott 0-3.

That trend stopped, agonizingly so, for Duke. From 1973 through 1977 North Carolina won at Duke by scores of 72-70, 73-71, 74-70, 89-87 and 84-71.

It didn’t go all that well away from Cameron, either. After the dedication game, North Carolina won 16 of the next 17 games between the two rivals; Duke’s only win was in the 1975 Big Four.

Which brings us to 1978. We all know how that season turned out; Duke’s first ACC Tournament title since 1966, the first Duke team to finish the season nationally ranked since 1968 and Duke’s first NCAA Tournament bid since 1966, a bid that resulted in a magical run that ended one win shy of a national title.

How could it have been otherwise? After all this team included junior guard Jim Spanarkel, sophomore center Mike Gminski and freshman forward Gene Banks, three of the best players in Duke history.

Freshman forward Kenny Dennard and North Carolina Central transfer John Harrell, a sophomore point guard, rounded out the starting lineup.

But it wasn’t so obvious at the time. Duke had lost its last five games in 1977. The 1978 team didn’t have a single recruited senior and seniors mattered in 1978, mattered a lot. North Carolina was the preseason number one team in the AP national poll. ACC rivals Maryland and Wake Forest were 14th and 17th respectively.

Duke was nowhere to be seen.

A maximum of two teams from any one conference could advance to the NCAA Tournament in 1978 and the smart money suggested that Duke might be playing for an NIT bid.

The early results showed both the promise and the peril of starting inexperienced talent. Duke lost to North Carolina by 13 in the Big Four Tournament. Duke went out west and suffered a controversial overtime loss to Southern California, a game in which the officiating was so bad, Duke received a letter of apology from the Pac-8. Duke went to College Park and beat Maryland there for the first time since 1969, came back, went to Reynolds Coliseum and lost to NC State by 25.

Maybe they were a year away.

North Carolina came to Durham on January 14 ranked second nationally, with a 12-1 record. The only loss was a stunning setback at William and Mary.

The Tar Heels were led by 1978 ACC Player of the Year Phil Ford and sophomore forward Mike O’Koren, Spanarkel’s former high-school teammate in New Jersey.

Duke was 11-3 and still outside of the polls.

The Blue Devils had just received a big roster bump. Former Parade All-America Bob Bender had transferred to Duke from Indiana. But he had transferred after the beginning of the 1976-’77 academic year, so he didn’t become eligible until the beginning of the second semester. Bender and Harrell would share the point-guard responsibilities.

January 14 was a Saturday. The Tar Heels jumped on top early but Spanarkel scored nine straight points, the latter two giving Duke its first lead, at 19-18.

But it was Gminski’s interior dominance that enabled Duke to sustain and build on that early lead. Rich Yonakor was out with mono for the visitors, leaving Jeff Wolf to try and check Gminski.

He was not up to the task.

However, Ford was up to the task of keeping Carolina close. Ford was a marvelous point guard and would share the 1978 national player-of-the-year honors with Marquette’s Butch Lee. Carolina led 47-46 at the half.

But Gminski was a battering ram inside and Duke’s 2-3 zone increasingly flustered Carolina into bad shots and turnovers, many of which led to fast-break baskets.

The Tar Heels still led 55-54 four minutes into the second half when Duke made its decisive move. Gminski scored six and Spanarkel scored four as Duke went on a 14-2 run, to take a 68-57 lead.

Carolina never seriously threatened again.

Duke’s biggest lead was 88-75, with two minutes left. It was as loud as I’ve ever heard Cameron. Some observers compared it to the sound of a 747 taking off.

No last-second loss this time.

A meaningless Carolina surge made the final score 92-84.

Gminski led Duke with 29 points, 10 rebounds and four blocks. He was 12 of 15 from the field, 5 of 5 from the line.

Spanarkel added 23 points, Banks 15 (and six rebounds) and Bender 11. Dennard led Duke with nine assists, while Harrell and Bender adeptly handled UNC’s pressure.

Duke shot 65 percent from the field, 80 percent from the line and assisted on 24 of their 38 made field goals.

Ford matched Gminski’s 29 points and had six assists. But he also had 10 turnovers.

O’Koren (19) and Tom Zaliagiris (12) joined Ford in double figures.

Bill Foster called it the biggest win of his tenure at Duke.

“This was a very, very big game for us. Our big thing now is to get ready to go again.”

Duke jumped into the AP poll at 17, the first time Duke had been ranked since late in the 1971 season, Randy Denton’s senior year.

Duke followed this with wins over Wake Forest and LaSalle. A foot injury to Gminski led to a couple of losses and Duke fell at Carolina when Ford had the Senior Day to end all Senior Days. That game was the only game after that NC State debacle that a healthy Duke team would lose until the national title game.

Many years later I talked to Spanarkel about this UNC game.

“This was the game when we knew we were back. It was the key game of the season, the game when we knew we could not only compete with anybody, but could beat anybody.”