No, not to 15th-seeded Lehigh in the 2012 NCAA Tournament. And not the 109-66 ass-whupping Ralph Sampson and UVa put on Duke in the ’83 ACC Tournament.
No, for Duke’s worst loss ever we have to return to the darkest days of Duke basketball, the mid-1970s. Running through three coaches in three years, the Blue Devils were in the midst of their worst run of form since 1927. From 1973-74 to 1976-77, Duke finished last or tied for last in the ACC, winning 2, 2, 3, and 2 conference games, respectively. Yeesh. . . .
Let’s set the stage:
Date: March 2, 1974.
Place: UNC’s Carmichael Auditorium.
Event: final regular-season game of the year.
Duke came into the clash with a 2-9 conference record (10-14 overall), having lost three straight. Neill McGeachy was in his first (and only) season as head coach.
Commanded by Dean Smith, Carolina was 8-3 in conference play and 19-4 overall, having just come off a tough loss to top-ranked NC State on the road.
Duke was led by three double-figure scorers — serviceable enough players but hardly Duke legends: forward Bob Fleischer, center Chris Redding, and guard Kevin Billerman (a native of Brick, NJ, and a future college and high school coach).
Carolina, on the other hand, had second-team All-American Bobby Jones and future All-Americans Walter Davis and Mitch Kupchak.
The teams had already met twice in the ’73-’74 season, with Carolina winning both, but by just respectable margins: once, by nine points, in the consolation game of the since-departed Big Four tournament (involving the four ACC schools in North Carolina) and once at Duke (a narrow 73-71 win for the Heels).
In other words, despite what the two schools’ records might indicate, there was no reason to expect a blow-out. And there wasn’t one.
Trailing by two at the half, the scrappy Blue Devils pushed out to a seemingly comfortable 86-78 lead with 17 seconds left in the game.
Somebody probably went out and started up the bus. Then the wheels fell off.
Jones hits two free throws. Duke 86, UNC 80.
Duke turns it over, for a Carolina layup. Duke 86, UNC 82.
Duke inbounds goes off Tate Armstrong (a future first-round draft pick of the Chicago Bulls, but a freshman in ’74). Carolina gets Jones an easy layup. Duke 86, UNC 84.
Duke successfully inbounds, and UNC fouls Pete Kramer, a 57% FT shooter on the year, with three seconds left. Kramer misses the front end, Carolina rebounds and calls timeout.
Then. . . . Well, watch it:
Walter Davis banks in an uncontested 35-footer at the buzzer. Duke 86, Carolina 86. Overtime.
With defense like that, one can see why Neill McGeachy spent a single year as head coach.
You can see where this is headed. Minus their wheels, Duke was done.
Final score: UNC 96, Duke 92.
Better days lay ahead for the Devils. It would just take four years.