Monday, February 20, 2017

Virginia Cavaliers 41 at North Carolina Tar Heels 65 (NCAA Basketball, ACC) - February 18, 2017

After forgoing Duke in favour of NC State in the afternoon, Sharpy and I made our way to Chapel Hill to complete our ACC hoops doubleheader with North Carolina hosting Virginia in a battle of ranked teams. It takes just over 30 minutes to get from Raleigh to the UNC campus, which is in the south part of town about three miles west of I-40. We drove through campus in the dwindling twilight, parking in the Bell Tower deck, so named for its proximity to the Bell Tower (below), which still functions. At $5, this lot is the cheapest option on campus for basketball, though you might be able to find free street parking outside its boundaries.

We went to check out the neighborhood at the north end of campus, enjoying the live music provided by some of the frat houses on Columbia, but the only bar that looked appealing (Top of the Hill at the corner of Columbia and Franklin) was extremely crowded, a sign of things to come. Rather than waste time looking for a quick drink, we made our way toward the Dean E. Smith Center, about a mile southeast. The walk takes you through much of campus, past the football stadium, around a residence, and down a dirt path before the Dean Dome comes into view. As you get closer, you are joined by more and more fans, each clad in Carolina blue and murmuring in anticipation of the event to come. The experience is unlike any I have had before, with so many fans walking a mile or more to the stadium from so many different directions, converging at the main entrance like thousands of believers coming to be baptised. Naturally, lineups to enter were very long by the time gates opened.

Before going in, we paid a quick visit to the Carolina Basketball Museum. It normally closes at 4 pm but was open until an hour before the game, and we had about ten minutes to check it out. Of course, Michael Jordan is the main attraction here, with his 1982 game winning shot leading to what was merely the first in a long career of championships.

There are several displays and if you plan to see a game here, make sure to get here early so you can enjoy this at your leisure. Two of my favourites are the championship trophies...

...and a draft board of first round picks.

You can see Vince Carter's name above (drafted by Golden State) and he is honoured outside with a large plaque along Letterman's Lane.

Tickets were sold out for this one, as they are for most ACC games, but face value for upper deck seats was $50 from what I could tell. Lower bowl seats are limited to season ticket holders and almost impossible to find for a reasonable price. UNC does sell returned tickets starting at 5 pm on the day before any sold out game, which is about the only way to get in for face value. Fortunately, I am writing the Stadium Journey review and was given a complimentary ticket, with the view below.

The first thing I noticed was that the crowds outside did not dissipate inside as the concourse was extremely crowded. The Smith Center, opened in 1986, has a capacity of 21,750 and every single fan has to navigate the single concourse after entering. With concession stand lineups occupying some of the space, moving around can become quite arduous. The same is true after the game, where the crowds return to their cars and dorm rooms, and sidewalks and staircases stay very crowded for the first quarter mile or so.

While you are making your way around the concourse, take the time to admire the posters and plaques that honour past teams and players, such as the 1982 championship team, above.

The venue is nicknamed the Dean Dome and it does have a dome at the very top, a unique design as it only covers part of the roof, as you can somewhat make out in the photo above.

Once you get inside the seating bowl, you will be overwhelmed by blue. Every seat is Carolina blue, and even the speakers and rafters are painted the same colour. And when you look up into the rafters, you will be amazed by the number of banners on display. There are 51 players whose numbers are honoured, plus all the ACC titles, tournament appearances, and other history. Each section of the ceiling has its own special collection of banners and it will take a few minutes to appreciate them all.

The upper deck seats go all the way up to row W or so, depending on which section you are in. This is quite far away, but as there are no suites here, not unreasonable. It is clear that this was designed to be an intimidating place to play for visiting teams and it certainly works well.

There is no center scoreboard, perhaps to improve acoustics. There are video boards above the seating bowl at each corner; one shows game stats while the other has replays. Ribbon boards separate the two seating levels and provide a scoreboard and game clock.

Food is quite basic, but also affordable. Most of the concessions serve the same old stuff like popcorn and pretzels, with the meatier selections tending towards Bojangles and Chick-Fil-A. If you want a sugar overload, try a pack of Munchkins, Dunkin' Donuts answer to Timbits and reasonably priced at $5.

What makes the Dean Smith Center such a memorable experience happens during the game itself. The fans are very loud and the relatively small size of the venue makes it louder still. Before the game, one side of the stadium yells “TAR” and the other replies “HEELS”, which really gets everyone going. When the Tar Heels are introduced as the C-A-R-O-L-I-N-A flags run onto the floor, everyone stands. During the game, when the team completes a key play, the place explodes with everyone cheering. Sound measurements on the video board indicated 102 dB, equivalent to a jet flying overhead at 1000 feet. There is a reason the team is 248-35 since the place opened.

Overall, this is one of the best places to watch college basketball, more like a religious spectacle than a sporting event. From the indoctrination of Carolina basketball history at the museum to the alma mater being sung at the end, this is a non-stop celebration of the sport and the university's place in it, and a must see for any fan of college basketball.

The Game

Virginia was ranked #14 and led the country in defense, giving up just 55.5 points per game, while the Tar Heels were #10 nationally and atop the ACC at 10-3. The Cavaliers broke out to an early 8-5 lead, but the Tar Heels went on a 12-2 run to make it 17-10. After that, Virginia simply stopped shooting the ball. They missed all 8 of their first-half three pointers, and UNC did just enough against their defense to build a 34-22 lead at the break.

The second half was more of the same as the Cavaliers launched another 9 unsuccessful treys, while the Tar Heels found holes in the Virginia defense, which led to a couple of thunderous dunks from Isaiah Hicks, the last of which put them up 51-29. Virginia was scoring less than a point per minute, but a couple of late threes got them to 41 points, still an embarrassment for a nationally-ranked team. North Carolina won both halves by 12 points in the 65-41 shellacking.

The Cavaliers shot 2/20 from downtown and only 15/54 overall (28%), making this a no-doubter from early on. Justin Jackson led all scorers with 20 points, including 4/8 from outside the arc. Not a great game, but a memorable one nonetheless.


If Duke had scheduled their game at 4:00, it would have been possible, though expensive, to do an ACC hoops tripleheader with NC State at noon and then this one. Somebody has to make sure this is possible next season.

Brice Johnson (still waiting to make his NBA debut with the Clippers after a preseason injury) and Marcus Paige (toiling in the D-League with Salt Lake) were honoured at halftime and their jerseys are the 50th and 51st added to the rafters.

Virginia lost their next game 54-48 in overtime to Miami. A great defense isn’t much use without at least an average offense. They’re going nowhere in the tournament unless they can regain some sort of shooting touch. As for North Carolina, they are starting to look dangerous and bear watching come March.



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