For three hours, they had dueled in the bright November chill of Kenan Stadium. First, North Carolina had dominated, then Virginia and, finally, Carolina again.
It had all been scene-setting though, because now the game came down to one play. Virginia led, 24-21, but the Tar Heels had driven from their 10 to Virginia's nine in the last 1:30. Now, it was fourth down and nine seconds were left.
The 48,000 fans who had rocked through the twists and turns of the day were standing. Players on both sidelines screamed encouragement.
Then Carolina Coach Dick Crum did the almost unthinkable: He went for the tie. As fans let out a collective gasp, he sent Kenny Miller out to kick a 25-yard field goal that made the final score 24-24.
No winner today. While Crum talked about "a tie feeling as good as a win," his players talked about "messing up Virginia's season" as justification for the kick.
The tie does very little to Virginia's season. The No. 19 Cavaliers are 3-0-2 in the Atlantic Coast Conference and 7-1-2 overall. They still are likely to be invited to the Peach Bowl and, if they beat Maryland next Saturday, would win the conference championship.
Their record -- with a tie counting as half a win and half a loss -- is 4-1. Maryland, which did not play Georgia Tech, is 4-0. If the Cavaliers beat the Terrapins, they would finish a half-game ahead of Maryland.
"That's what I told the players," said a disappointed Virginia Coach George Welsh. "Our motivation this week was supposed to be the conference title and we came in flat. I hope next week will be different."
In Welsh's glum locker room, players kept stopping themselves when they referred to "losing." "Lose, tie, whatever it was we did," said quarterback Don Majkowski.
"In college football, you play for the win or you don't come," Virginia safety Bob Sweeney said.
Carolina's players (the Tar Heels are 4-5-1, 2-2-1 in the ACC) repeated the same phrase, "It was Coach Crum's decision." But quarterback Kevin Anthony, who led UNC's comeback at the end, admitted he kept looking to Crum for the signal for a fake until the moment he put the ball down for Miller to kick.
Welsh, who exchanged an on-the-run, wordless handshake with Crum after the game, said, "It's up to him, it's his team. I'm not going to conjecture on what I would have done."
Just as upsetting to Virginia, though, was that the game came down to one play -- or nonplay, as it turned out. The Cavaliers had trailed by 14-0 early and by 14-3 at the half.
They had dominated the second half, though, scoring on a one-yard run by Steve Morse, a 25-yard pass from Majkowski to John Ford to take the lead with 14:39 left and on a five-yard run by Majkowski with 8:40 to go. They led, 24-14, and had the ball with less than six minutes left.
Then it all fell apart.
"There's no excuse for what we did defensively in the last five minutes," said linebacker Charles McDaniel. "We were terrible, it was atrocious . . . The defense is responsible for this loss -- I mean tie."
The offense started it, though, failing to move from the Carolina 49 after an interception by Ray Daly there with 7:51 to go. UNC got the ball back at its 13 with 5:54 left.
All day, Carolina, which ended up 22 of 48 passing for a school-record 331 yards, had tried to go deep, without a lot of luck. A trick play -- quarterback to flanker to quarterback -- had produced the first touchdown on a 40-yard first quarter play and Anthony had hit Eric Streater (the passer on the first score) from five yards out for the 14-0 first-quarter lead.
Now, from the 26, Anthony found flanker Earl Winfield, a half-step behind the defense. Winfield, after bobbling the ball for a good 10 yards before hauling it in, carried to Virginia's 11 for a 63-yard gain. Two plays later, Anthony passed to Arnold Franklin over the middle and it was 24-20 with 4:03 left.
Crum then gave a hint of what was to come, not going for two points, creating the 24-21 score that made a tie possible. "Psychologically, it would have hurt us not to be in position to at least tie (with a field goal)," he said. "I felt we had to kick to keep things going."
Virginia appeared to have stopped things moments later when Majkowski (20 of 29 for 266 yards) passed to Geno Zimmerlink. The play gave Virginia a first down at its 36 with 3:18 left.
But Virginia had to punt with 1:37 left. When returner Rob Rogers, whose third-quarter fumble had set up Virginia's first touchdown, slipped at his 10, the Tar Heels had 90 yards to go in 90 seconds.
With Virginia's players screaming in frustration on the sideline, the Tar Heels almost pulled it off. Two passes to Winfield gained a total of 15 yards. After an incompletion, Anthony found Streater over the middle for 23 yards. The ball was at the 48, the clock ticking down to 47 seconds.
Anthony passed to Franklin for five more, the tight end rolling out of bounds. Then his pass to Winfield over the middle gained 17 yards, to the 31. Carolina took its last timeout with 34 seconds to go.
The crowd, silent for so long, was deafening. Anthony, rolling out, hit Winfield for a first down at the nine. Three passes into the end zone produced nothing.
And so, with nine seconds left, it came down to one crushing anticlimax.
Which probably explains why the sight of Miller's kick seemed to cast a pall over the entire stadium. Virginia players threw their helmets and cursed while their fans booed. Carolina players just watched; some of their fans booed and the rest sat silent.
It was the ultimate frustration: three hours of tension and then, finally, nothing.