Table of Contents
The first time she glanced at an NCAA men’s tournament bracket earlier this month, Kelly Sullivan realized she overlooked one detail when choosing a wedding date.
“Hey,” she warned fiancé Zach Boehmer, “the Final Four is on the same day as our wedding.”
College basketball has been a lifelong passion for Sullivan and Boehmer, but the Des Moines couple doesn’t support the same team.
Sullivan fell in love with Duke in second grade watching J.J. Redick bombing threes in a cutoff T-shirt. Ever since, she has been the type of diehard fan who makes certain she’s in front of a TV whenever Duke plays, who lies awake the night before big Duke games and who buys Duke jerseys for her college roommates to sway them to root for her team.
Boehmer is as fiercely devoted to North Carolina basketball as his fiancée is to Duke. While his twin cousins introduced him to rooting for the Tar Heels as a young boy, it was watching the Ty Lawson-Danny Green-Tyler Hansbrough teams mow through college basketball en route to the 2009 national title that made his blood run Carolina blue for life.
When Boehmer took Sullivan to dinner for their first date in 2018, the conversation between the recent University of Northern Iowa grads soon shifted to basketball. Boehmer gritted his teeth and stayed quiet when Sullivan revealed that she was a big Duke fan because he “wanted the date to go well.” Then he pulled out a Tar Heels-themed wallet to pay for dinner, and Sullivan’s face went pale.
“I really never thought I’d end up with a Carolina fan,” Sullivan said. “Like ever. It was a worst-case scenario for me, but I liked him and I liked that he knew about sports. Plus, I thought that I’d eventually convert him”
“That’s never going to happen,” Boehmer countered.
“I’m still working on it,” Sullivan replied.
At first, Sullivan’s realization that they were getting married on Final Four Saturday seemed like it could affect only her favorite team. Whereas talent-laden Duke beat Gonzaga and Kentucky in non-league play and won the outright ACC regular-season title, North Carolina required a late-season surge just to make the NCAA tournament.
Then the Tar Heels annihilated Marquette in the first round of the NCAA tournament. And upset reigning national champion Baylor two days later. And surged late to defeat UCLA in the Sweet 16. Pretty soon Duke and North Carolina were on the precipice of their first NCAA tournament clash, an epic Final Four matchup with rivalry bragging rights, Mike Krzyzewski’s coaching future and a spot in the national title game all hanging in the balance.
“Every game we were like, ‘Uh-oh,’ Boehmer said. “There’s a chance that this is going to happen.”
‘It’s arguably the biggest game in the history of the rivalry, but it’s also the biggest day of my life’
Saturday’s looming showdown between Duke and North Carolina might be the most anticipated Final Four game in years, but for many couples getting married on Saturday night, it’s also a major headache. Overtaxed brides and grooms in the Raleigh-Durham area and beyond are having to figure out how to allow guests to watch the game without detracting from a day that’s supposed to be all about them.
Emily Izakowitz is a Durham-based event planner hired months ago to organize a wedding for Saturday evening. Since the bride, groom and members of both families are North Carolina alums and avid Tar Heels fans, Izakowitz is still “sorting through” how to handle the game coinciding with the wedding reception.
“I expect it will make things more interesting than normal,” Izakowitz said. “Basically, it’s really not ideal!”
It’s also difficult for 40-year-old Matthew Horsnell, who has literally rooted for North Carolina since he was in diapers. His dad watched the 1982 national championship game between North Carolina and Georgetown with Horsnell on his lap.
There’s a brick outside the Dean Smith Center bearing the name of Horsnell, his brother and their father. The trio also have matching Tar Heels tattoos on each of their ankles. Horsnell sheepishly admits he cried when the Jerry Stackhouse-Rasheed Wallace Tar Heels lost to Arkansas in the 1995 Final Four and again when the Vince Carter-Antawn Jamison team fell to underdog Utah in 1998.
When Horsnell told his dad over the phone last year that he was getting married outside Nashville on April 2, he remembers hearing the clicking of keyboard keys in the background. When the noise stopped, Horsnell’s dad told him, “You know that’s Final Four weekend, right?”
At the time, Horsnell dismissed the possibility that North Carolina could make it that far with a thin roster and Hubert Davis in his first year as head coach. A year later, being wrong has left him in the stressful position of trying to figure out how to follow the biggest Duke-North Carolina game in history without taking away from his wedding day.
In the end, Horsnell has chosen starting his marriage off happily over the thrill of watching North Carolina try to send Krzyzewski into retirement with a heartbreaking loss.
“It’s arguably the biggest game in the history of the rivalry, but it’s also the biggest day of my life,” Horsnell said. “While I would love to be watching the game – and I’m not going to lie, I’ll probably be keeping track of the score — I’m not going to bring a tablet or phone into the reception. I’m going to sit and enjoy that moment with my friends and family and the love of my life.”
While Horsnell has given his dad and a groomsman who’s a diehard Duke fan “a pass to leave a little bit early,” he has assigned one member of his wedding party to stay until the end.
“That’s my brother,” Horsnell said. “He’s going to be whispering score updates in my ear.”
Putting a heated rivalry into perspective
Whereas Horsnell’s bride-to-be doesn’t share his love for basketball, Trent Brown isn’t in quite so difficult a predicament. Brown and his fiancée, Grace Smith, are both North Carolina alums whose relationship blossomed because of their mutual love of the Tar Heels.
Brown and Smith met in August 2015 as North Carolina freshmen living on the seventh floor of Hinton James residence hall. Nearly two years later, they began dating during the 2017 NCAA tournament and stormed Franklin Street together after the Tar Heels captured the national title.
Over the past five years, they’ve sat side-by-side at North Carolina games together. Brown asked Smith to be his girlfriend while walking across North Carolina’s soccer field and proposed overlooking that very same spot just over three years later.
“It’s a really cheesy UNC story,” Brown said with a chuckle.
When North Carolina rallied to beat UCLA in the Sweet 16 last Friday night, Smith recognized that the possibility of the Tar Heels facing Duke during their wedding was no longer far-fetched.
“Do we need to start figuring this out?” she asked Brown.
Fearful of jinxing North Carolina ahead of its Elite Eight matchup with Saint Peter’s, Brown responded, “We’re going to figure this out on Sunday at 7 p.m.”
Their salvation it turns out will be a friend’s projector and Brown’s mobile hotspot. Their venue in downtown Raleigh doesn’t have WiFi, so Brown and Smith are hopeful that setup will work.
“We care so much that it wasn’t even a question,” Brown said. “It was obvious we were going to be watching the game. By the time it starts, the ceremony, speeches and toasts will be over. After that, man, we’re going to be drinking beer, dancing and hopefully watching us win.”
That’s the solution that Zach Boehmer and Kelly Sullivan also chose, even if the game inevitably will leave one of them dejected on their wedding night. They’ve acquired a projector and intend to watch the game alongside their friends and family during their reception.
“We’ve promised each other we’ll be civil,” Sullivan said. “It will definitely be our first test as husband and wife.”
Since Sunday afternoon, Boehmer’s and Sullivan’s phones have been buzzing nonstop with friends and family razzing them about the game, asking if they’re nervous or if they’re still on speaking terms. Boehmer laughs right along with them, admitting it almost seems like “destiny” that North Carolina and Duke would meet for the first time in the NCAA tournament on their wedding day.
As a North Carolina fan of more than 15 years, Boehmer wants to see his Tar Heels win, but he admits that this week he’s more torn than usual.
“There would be nothing greater than Coach K losing his last game to North Carolina,” Boehmer said. “But at the same time, it’s our wedding day, I want my wife to have the best day and to not end the day upset.”