By Eamonn Brennan
February 9, 2012
CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- Six … Five …
The seconds melted away. Austin Rivers kept dribbling.
Mason Plumlee was under the rim, another among the nearly 22,000 people crammed inside the Dean E. Smith Center, as helpless as each and every one. Later, he'd admit it: He was a little worried. He trusted Austin. It's just, well, those seconds were vanishing, and there Rivers was, dribbling them away. What if he missed? Would Plumlee have a chance to get a rebound?
"What is he doing?" Plumlee thought. "Is he going to shoot it?"
Seth Curry wasn't going to stand by and wait. He screamed at Rivers: "Shoot it! Shoot it!" It was futile. The crowd was too loud. No way Rivers could hear him. Would he get it off in time?
Three … Two …
That's when Doc Rivers knew. He'd seen it before. His son had set things up this way: He had forced UNC center Tyler Zeller into an uncomfortable switch, and now he had the big man right where he wanted. Doc's son was hesitating on purpose, waiting for the 7-foot Zeller to back up -- just enough to see the rim, just enough to give it a chance.
It hung up in the air the way last-second shots do, floating through space at its own leisure, blissfully unaware of its brief journey's consequence. For half a second -- no more -- the arcing, dropping basketball was the only thing in the arena in motion. Twenty-two thousand froze in their seats. Some covered their eyes. The Dean Dome was underwater, muffled, a slow-motion scene from a cheesy action movie. The time played tricks.
And then, just like that, it was over. Duke 85. Carolina 84. Austin Rivers had just played the most important -- and the longest -- six seconds of his life.
"I swear the ball was in the air for like 10 minutes," Rivers said. "My heart dropped. I shot it with confidence, but when I was walking back it looked good and I was like, 'Please go in.'
"When it went in, my heart jumped. It was the best feeling I've ever had in my life."
Rivers' frequent use of the word "heart" feels appropriate. Of all the qualities he displayed Wednesday night -- the deep range, the twitchy speed, that tightrope ballhandling, the things that made him one of the most highly touted Duke freshmen in recent memory -- Rivers' heart, and the heart of his teammates, was the one that mattered most.
The Blue Devils looked dead more than once in the second half, at the mercy of a team too strong on the boards, too fast on the break, too good in too many ways, just too much. But each time the Tar Heels looked set to finally, forcefully pull away, Rivers hit a big 3 to keep them alive.
In the process, he made six 3s (five more than the entire UNC team), scored a career-high 29 points -- the most any Duke freshman has ever scored against North Carolina -- and answered every question this game has asked about his ability, his decision-making, his toughness and his will.
Oh, and he became a Duke legend. There's that, too.
"It's amazing what can happen when you have courage," Rivers said.
That's the word Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski wrote on the chalkboard before the game: Courage. Curry used a different term: Faith.
However you choose to describe it, Duke had it, scrapping and clawing its way back from 12 points back, then 10, then 13, then 10, then seven, then four. The Blue Devils needed a little help from the three would-be stars of the game, too: Zeller, Kendall Marshall and Harrison Barnes led the Tar Heels throughout, but Marshall's errant pass led to a Mason Plumlee steal and a Curry 3. Barnes, so peerless throughout the second half, charged into Ryan Kelly on an overzealous drive. Zeller, so dominant all night, missed key free throws and contributed a strange and brutally unlucky tip-in of a wayward Ryan Kelly shot.
In the final two minutes and 38 seconds, Duke erased a 10-point UNC lead. In that time span, the Heels not only didn't make a shot -- they didn't even attempt a shot. The final four possessions consisted of two turnovers and a pair of 1-for-2 free throw sequences.
The Dean Dome crowd could do little but wail and gnash and feel the nerves overcome what had been, for the 37 minutes and 22 seconds that preceded it, an expected and warranted coronation.
Without those two minutes and 38 seconds -- without Duke's hot shooting and timely plays and poise and self-belief -- Rivers' final six seconds never happen.
He was the key throughout. For much of the season, the prodigal freshman has been criticized for not living up to the hype that accompanied his arrival in Durham. He was too inconsistent, too prone to bad decisions, too willing to force his own offense, too weak on the defensive end.
He's been called overrated, erratic, even selfish. Rivers would unload bad 3s. He would drive the lane and force it up. He would miss open teammates, or he would be too keen to find them, or he'd get caught somewhere in between.
At times, the judgments -- harsh though they were -- were accurate.
Rivers was a gunner, a high-school scorer who couldn't adapt to the rigors of the college game. He was too hyped, too used to being the star, too accustomed to having everything come easy. At least, that's what everyone said.
Perhaps we've been spoiled. We're used to dominant freshmen in college hoops. Kevin Durant, Derrick Rose, John Wall, Kevin Love, Michael Beasley, Jared Sullinger -- throughout the one-and-done era, when a player arrives with Rivers' brand of hype, we expect him to live up to it, and quickly. If he doesn't, the dreaded b-word -- bust -- is applied in short order. Our patience is nonexistent.
But maybe Rivers -- like the player across from him Wednesday night, Harrison Barnes -- simply needed what so many 19-year-olds need: time to grow.
"He has grown," his dad, Boston Celtics coach Doc Rivers, told ESPN.com after the game. "They've done a great job with him here. He's always scored. But to do it at this level, to be efficient with it, to take a game on like this -- he's just really grown, and you can see it. It's just a proud, proud moment."
"All freshmen are going to have their ups and downs," added his teammate, Curry. "But we have faith in him."
That faith was rewarded on this night, and the reward was so much more than a win. Consider where this team was, where it appeared to be going: The Blue Devils' most recent game was a home loss to Miami, their second loss at Cameron Indoor Stadium in the past five games. Just three weeks ago, Duke was handed a similar defeat thanks to Florida State guard Michael Snaer's last-second 3.
Coach K's team was playing the program's worst defense of the past decade; it entered the game ranked No. 9 in the ACC in adjusted defensive efficiency. It couldn't rebound, it couldn't get stops, and it was playing a national title contender that would be exploiting those very characteristics.
The challenge appeared insurmountable. To win, Duke's offense would have to keep the pace. It would have to get big performances from, well, everyone. And something special -- something worthy of this storied rivalry -- would have to unfold.
"To hit a game-winner like that," Krzyzewski said, "is storybook. That's one of the best games [these two teams] have ever played."
Coach K has a way of downplaying the big moment, of treating the biggest and best games like just another day at the office. But even he couldn't downplay this one. Frankly, why try?
Thanks to Rivers, this game, that finish, that arcing 3 that hung in the air for 10 minutes -- and every moment that led up to it -- will become one of the all-time capital-M moments in a rivalry with too many to count already. Duke will remember it forever. UNC will do its best to forget.
And Rivers -- ballyhooed and beleaguered, embraced and dismissed -- will see his unlikely name etched in Duke-Carolina lore forever.
"It took me a minute to realize what just happened," Curry said. "It was just … surreal."
"I had no idea what he was doing," Plumlee said, laughing and shaking his head. "But Austin knew exactly what he was doing. What a …"
Plumlee paused. He took a second.
"Just … what a win."
How quickly can doubt become faith? How swiftly can defeat become victory? How soon can one shot become history?
Turns out, all it takes is six seconds.
Eamonn Brennan covers college basketball for ESPN.com. You can see his work in the College Basketball Nation blog. To contact Eamonn, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or reach him on Twitter (@eamonnbrennan).
About The Shot
Austin Rivers' shot instantly goes on the Carolina-Duke series highlight reel, but it didn't cause Wednesday's loss.
By Adam Lucas
Feb. 9, 2012
It was not about the shot.
You're going to see Austin Rivers's game-winning three-pointer a dozen times on Thursday, and every time it's going to infuriate you. The highlights will show that his buzzer-beater is how Carolina lost the game.
It was not how Carolina lost the game.
Up ten points with under 2:30 to play, it takes an unbelievable series of events to create a comeback. Like, for example, a pair of three-pointers off an offensive rebound and an uncharacteristic turnover, another offensive rebound that led to two more points, a Tar Heel tipping the ball into the Duke basket, and a last-second mismatch that leads to some uncertainty.
All of that had to happen. If any one of those five things doesn't happen--over a 150-second span in which the Tar Heels did not attempt a single field goal--this is a very different story.
But they all happened. All five of them. You could feel it starting to unravel a little after the second three-pointer. What happened?
"We just mentally fell apart," said Harrison Barnes.
Out of all the Carolina postgame locker rooms I've been in, over all the seasons and all the years, I don't remember any like this. There was no music, of course, because that's for wins. But there was also no talking. There was no sound of tape being cut off ankles. No shoes being slammed to the floor.
There was nothing. It was absolutely silent. Players met the media with their game jerseys still on, towels slung around their shoulders.
An obviously despondent Tyler Zeller was the last player to emerge. Understand this: to get anywhere close to blaming the loss on him is foolhardy. If Zeller hadn't shown up in the first half, Duke might well have taken a double-digit lead into the locker room and coasted through the second half. He had 23 points and 11 rebounds and was a couple of made free throws away from this story being about his epic Carolina-Duke performance.
But he didn't make them. Which meant he had to sit in front of the media, and had to somehow quantify what it must be like to shoot a free throw with 21,750 people watching, with their mother standing nervously in the first row near midcourt with her hands clenched tightly together, and then have to walk off the court feeling like you lost the game. He will blame himself much harder than any of us--hopefully--would ever blame him.
He will see those final 15 seconds before he goes to sleep, in his sleep, and the first thing when he wakes up. It is not easy for a big man to stay with a guard in that situation. Tyler Hansbrough did it against Florida State's Toney Douglas in Tallahassee in 2009. The reason we remember it is because it's such a unique play.
Teams practice almost everything. It's very hard to simulate your seven-footer having to go one-on-one against the other team's best scorer. In that moment, when there was no luxury of thinking--imagine if thousands of people talked for hours or days or weeks or maybe years about a decision you made in less than 10 seconds--Zeller made a choice he almost instantly regretted.
"I should have gotten up further," he said. "I didn't want to foul him. But you can't give him the three when you're up two."
He's right, of course. But it was not about the shot. It was about those two minutes before the shot, when Duke essentially did the exact opposite to Carolina of what the Tar Heels did to them in 2005, when Marvin Williams's three-point play capped a nine-point comeback in three minutes. Remember the euphoria of that shot, how you still get a little giddy when you see the replay? This was the exact inverse of that moment. This was a bottomless feeling as soon as the buzzer went off.
And in that way, it is about the shot. Not the game--the game was about those final two minutes. But that feeling of dread that settled over the Smith Center as Duke piled on each other near center court was not because of just losing the game. It was not about having to watch the celebration.
It's about the knowledge that we'll be watching that shot forever. It instantly goes right onto the essential Carolina-Duke highlight reel, with Walter Davis in 1974 and bloody Montross and Chris Duhon's layup and bloody Hansbrough and Danny Green over Greg Paulus and Jeff Capel's halfcourt heave. It is right there, already. You'll never be able to see any of those without also seeing Austin Rivers drop through a three-pointer.
That's why fans stayed frozen to their seats. It was sheer paralysis, the kind that comes when you know that what you just saw was instantaneously seared into your brain. There are very few moments like that. This was one. It instantly goes to the top of the most gut-wrenching regular season losses (NCAA Tournament losses are in an entirely different category) in Carolina history.
Roy Williams has now coached 311 games at North Carolina. I can only think of one regular season game when he has appeared as frustrated and downtrodden as he did on Wednesday night--that was in 2004, when Duhon drove the length of the floor to beat Carolina in overtime. From an outside perspective, that game didn't hurt as much as this one. In 2004, most of us were just thrilled to be relevant again. Just having an opportunity to win that type of game was enough to cause giddiness.
Eight years and two championships later, the expectations feel a little different. We're spoiled again, which is terrific. And the head coach, the one who was so jarringly disappointed in 2004?
He trudged through the locker room while his players did interviews. His jacket was off and his head was down. He looked, well, he looked exactly the way you felt at around 11:30 on Wednesday night.
He'll take the evening to despair. Sleep will not come easily.
But for him, tomorrow will not be about the shot. The shot is simply the tool that caused the fourth loss of the season. He doesn't have time or the inclination to worry about things like Carolina-Duke series highlight reels or where that comeback might rank in the history of the two teams or what it means about the rivalry.
At the end of his late night press conference, he started to provide a tiny window into what these next couple days might be like. How in the world do you come back from that? We're all going to wake up in the morning and it's going to be one of the first things we think about and the worst part is that it's going to be real.
You know how you feel. Imagine how they feel.
"You ought to be ticked off," he said. "You ought to be flat out ticked off. You're going to become more determined. If you start wallowing in sorrow for yourself or feeling sorry for yourself, you should just go home...We lost a game we could've won. If we don't learn something from that and come back more determined, I've got the wrong group. And I don't think I have the wrong group. We're going to come back and go to work."
Adam Lucas is the publisher of Tar Heel Monthly. He is also the author or co-author of six books on Carolina basketball, including the official chronicle of the first 100 years of Tar Heel hoops, A Century of Excellence, which is available now. Get real-time UNC sports updates from the THM staff on Twitter and Facebook.
Austin Rivers’ buzzer-beater adds to Duke-UNC lore
By Pat Forde
February 9, 2012
CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – It was nearly midnight on Wednesday. Doc Rivers had to go.
He needed to hightail it back to Boston, where the Los Angeles Lakers are waiting to take on Rivers’ Boston Celtics on Thursday night. But that reality could wait a sweet moment longer. Right now, Doc was not an NBA coach. He was a deliriously proud dad. And he was not leaving the Dean Smith Center until he had a chance to embrace his son, Austin, after he had the basketball moment of a young lifetime.
Finally, Austin emerged from the Duke locker room in sweats and walked 20 feet, back behind a black curtain, to see his family. They briefly relived the shot that became an instant classic in Blue Devils lore, the long 3-pointer that swished after the buzzer and shocked North Carolina 85-84 in one of the wildest installments in this endlessly compelling rivalry.
Then it was time. Austin had to get on the bus back to Durham. Doc had to get on a plane back to Boston.
“I’m taking off,” Doc said, wrapping his arms around Austin. “Just wanted to say I’m proud of you, son.”
Understand, Doc Rivers has won a world championship. He has experienced the ultimate in his life’s work. But this is family. To see it end this way? With the youngest of his three kids scoring 29 points in the biggest game of his life, capped off by a shot that reverberated across America?
“No better feeling in the world,” Doc said, smiling.
His tutelage was instrumental in making Austin the nation’s top-ranked high-school senior in 2010-11 and the leading scorer for this Duke team as a freshman in 2011-12. But the demands of the job mean that Doc Rivers has missed a lot of his kids’ games over the years. He’s made as many as possible – but possible is limited.
So being here for this was special. This was his first visit to the Dean Dome, his first Duke-Carolina game. For 40 minutes, he was into it as a fan – but until the end, he only came out of his seat when adversity struck.
When Austin was called for a charge, Doc stood up and clapped.
When Austin threw away a pass that turned into a Carolina layup, Doc clapped harder.
When the game seemed to be slipping irrevocably away – with the Tar Heels leading by 13 early in the second half, 11 later on and by 10 with 2:10 to play – Doc kept clapping for Austin and his teammates.
“I just wanted them to hang in there,” he said. “They were never out of it.”
No, they were never out of it. Even when it seemed like they certainly were out of it.
As many thrilling, improbable, memorable endings as there have been in the previous 232 installments of this series, this might be the all-timer. At the least, Duke now has its equivalent of the famous 1974 game in which the Tar Heels somehow came back from eight points down in the final 17 seconds to tie, then won in overtime.
But that one was on Carolina’s home court, as a top-five team against an unranked Blue Devils squad. This death-defying Duke rally came in enemy territory against the No. 5 team in the country.
“For me,” Mike Krzyzewski said, “that’s one of the best ones.”
College basketball fans (and writers) often are guilty of failing to appreciate the games as they happen because we’re so busy trying to forecast what it all will mean in March. This is no time for that.
There will be ample airtime, Internet space and newspaper ink devoted in the days ahead to The Big Picture. To discuss whether North Carolina is fatally flawed as a national title contender, or whether Duke is better than suspected. First, a game like this deserves to be savored for a while.
The gritty rally required some incredibly clutch shooting by Duke. It required some incredibly unnerved play by Carolina. And it required one absolutely stunning stroke of fluke luck.
The timeline of how it happened:
• Carolina’s Harrison Barnes bounces in a jumper for an 82-72 Heels lead with 2:38 left. Roy Williams calls timeout to plot endgame strategy, which apparently he cribbed from the captain of the Italian cruise liner.
• A Ryan Kelly 3-pointer was tipped, going out of bounds to Duke at 2:18. Nine seconds later, Tyler Thornton rises up and makes his only shot of the game, a 3-pointer. Score: UNC 82-75. Time remaining: 2:09.
• Williams turns to his assistants, asks how many timeouts he has left and calls one. Ensuing strategy session clearly cribbed from Rick Perry campaign. Time: 1:59.
• Mason Plumlee steals a weak pass from Carolina point guard Kendall Marshall, who until that point had played a solid floor game. In transition, Duke finds Seth Curry on the left wing for an absolute bomb of a “3,” which he swishes. Score: UNC 82-78. Time: 1:48. “I think that was worth more [than three],” Krzyzewski said. “I was shocked by it. He was almost sitting in our lap.”
• Barnes is called for a charge. Time: 1:23.
• Kelly attempts a 3-pointer that misses, but he runs down the rebound on the baseline and swishes a jumper. Score: UNC 82-80. Time: 1:10.
• Plumlee gets too physical with Tyler Zeller on the low block and is called for a foul. Zeller misses the first throw and makes the second. Score: UNC 83-80. Time: 44.3 seconds.
• Duke calls time with 20.3 seconds left. Kelly shoots an airball 3-pointer from the wing that is off so badly, Zeller jumps beneath the basket for the rebound – and somehow manages to deflect the ball off the glass and into the basket for two Blue Devils points. Score: UNC 83-82. Time: 14.2 seconds. Asked if he’s ever seen anything like that, Williams responds, “No. It’s North Carolina-Duke. Never seen anything like that one.”
• With the sellout crowd of 21,750 actively losing its mind, Carolina inbounds the ball to Zeller, who is quickly fouled. The senior had had an epic first half, racking up 19 points and seven rebounds, but disappeared in the second half. He reappeared in the final minute, but in all the wrong ways – the missed foul shot earlier, the tipped-in basket. Zeller continued his calamitous minute by making just one of two free throws. Score: UNC 84-82. Time: 13.9 seconds.
• Plumlee snatches the rebound of Zeller’s missed foul shot and advances the ball to Rivers. He is a freshman, but he is the only logical choice to handle the ball at this point. He has shot the ball splendidly all night, keeping Duke in the game with five 3-pointers and 26 points. He is the creator on the team. And he has the clutch gene. “He believes he should be in games like this and play well,” Krzyzewski said. “I’m sure he’s fantasized about hitting winning shots and putting himself in this situation.”
Fantasy met reality nearly 25 feet from the hoop. Coming off a screen, Rivers found Zeller switched out onto him. It was a two-point game, so Rivers had the option of driving the ball or taking the 3-pointer.
“I just had to choose,” Rivers said. “Coach had a lot of confidence in me and gave me a chance to do something.”
For a brief instant, it looked as if he might dribble out the clock. But the coach’s son kept an eye on the clock above the backboard. The last number he saw was “2.” Like a certain Dukie with a flair for the dramatic 20 years ago – a guy named Christian Laettner – the clock in his head was reliable.
Against Kentucky in 1992, Laettner had the preternatural poise to take a balancing dribble before turning and hitting the most famous shot in NCAA tournament history at the buzzer. Against Carolina in 2012, Little Laettner feinted toward Zeller, created some last-second daylight and rose.
“I saw him backing off,” Rivers said, adding that Zeller had the disadvantage of not seeing the clock and knowing it was now-or-never time. “It looked good. I said, ‘Please go in.’ It seemed the ball was in the air 10 minutes.
“When the ball went in, my heart jumped. Best feeling of my life.”
When the ball went in and all those fans went mute, Rivers ran down the court with his hands at his sides (Laettner threw his hands in the air like it was a “Chariots of Fire” moment). He was gang-tackled by teammates around the opposite 3-point arc.
“Storybook,” Krzyzewski said.
While Duke rejoiced, the Dean Dome denizens recoiled in shock. Williams stressed that Duke won the game as much as Carolina lost it, but the late-game carnage was brutal: two turnovers, two missed free throws, two failures to collect defensive rebounds, two points tipped in for the Devils – and then Zeller fails to blanket Rivers far outside the arc.
“You ought to be ticked off,” Williams said of his players. “You ought to be flat-out ticked off. … My team better by God come back determined to be better. We lost a game we should have won.”
And Duke won a game it should have lost, thanks to an Austin Rivers shot that ranks among the greatest in Duke history.
“I always love it when a kid does something special like that,” Krzyzewski said. “That’s what he’s put on the planet to do.”
And the man who helped put him on the planet, Doc Rivers, was there to see it – not as a coach, but as a dad. No better feeling in the world, indeed.