North Carolina left the door open, Austin Rivers saved his best for the last second, and when it was all over and Duke's players mobbed Rivers in the corner while Carolina players stumbled off the court, the game had somehow lived up to the outrageous amounts of hype. Another instant classic from a rivalry that knows no other way.
If you're a college basketball fan, you couldn't help but appreciate the ending.
If you're a Duke fan, you were euphoric.
If you're a Carolina fan, you weren't even mad. Mostly just dazed, shellshocked, mumbling about the refs, shuffling home, trying to ignore a cell phone that wouldn't stop vibrating, staring into space... Yeah, I'm in that last category, and Wednesday night was the worst case scenario. And it all got worse every time you remembered that Duke fans everywhere would be celebrating this game for years to come. It's one thing to be unhappy, but knowing that those people are happy makes it twice as bad.
Silencing the crowd with a walk-off game-winner is the ultimate dream in a rivalry. Watching it come true for Austin Rivers sort of made me want to disappear. Just pretend it never happened. But it did, and it was a hell of a shot. A hell of a game, too, with positives and negatives for both teams. So rather than disappearing, let's suck it up and take a look back.
Beginning with the man at the center of it all...
AUSTIN RIVERS IS DUKE. Duke's entire offense revolves around Rivers, a shoot-first guard who, 'til Wednesday, hadn't been shooting all that well. Coming into Wednesday's game, I wasn't worried. Rivers is the cocky coach's son who last year had this to say about North Carolina:
"I don’t think it’s much of a rivalry right now because UNC’s not better than Duke, nowhere near in my opinion. Until UNC can start winning some games, I don’t think it’s much of a rivalry. I don’t think it’s a rivalry. They have to do something first. Duke’s done their share — I don’t know about UNC."
He's got the attitude and pedigree of a young Kobe Bryant, but without the game to match. He's been closer to Nick Young--the would-be assassin who misses a lot--than Kobe or even J.J. Redick.
Until Wednesday, anyway. He opened the game scoring 10 of Duke's first 12 points, and he closed by hitting the biggest shot of Duke's season. Literally from start to finish, he was the player everyone in Durham had been dreaming about all summer long, when Duke fans told anyone who'd listen that they'd be fine without Kyrie Irving, because Austin Rivers was even better.
Wednesday he was. He scored more points (29) than
any Blue Devil any Blue Devil freshman in the history of the Carolina-Duke rivalry, and for all his ups and downs this season, you have to give him this much: He played his best in the biggest game of Duke's season so far, and he proved that if Duke's going to live and die by Austin Rivers this year, he's capable of taking them a long way. Duke can't score or defend inside, and it showed on Wednesday. But when Rivers plays that well, it won't matter against almost any team in the country. That showed, too.
At worst, Rivers' performance Wednesday was an aberration that'll go down in history as one of the best individual performances in the history of the best rivalry in college basketball. At best, Wednesday was a turning point for Rivers and Duke, in general, and from here on out he'll play as well as he did in Chapel Hill, and turn Duke into a whole different team. (This is a terrifying thought.)
As for the other side...
HARRISON BARNES IS A WORK IN PROGRESS. On February 9th, 2005, North Carolina lost another one-point game to Duke in a classic game that went down to the final seconds. Raymond Felton looked lost on the final possession (the Heels didn't even get a shot off), and a more talented team didn't have the killer instinct to put away the Devils. Rashad McCants, the team's leading scorer, only scored 11 points that night, and fans worried that the nucleus of McCants, Felton, and Sean May was doomed. That 2005 team went on to destroy everyone in their path and win a national title.
It's a long season. With a team as talented as Carolina this year, making all the pieces fit can take time. It's been a year-and-a-half with this roster, and they still hasn't found the killer instinct that it'll take to win a national title, but that doesn't mean they can't.
In general, there are two types of problems that face any basketball team.
- Serious Problems: When a team has fundamental talent deficiencies that they'll never overcome, and instead they have to hope that better teams don't play their best game, and that their strengths can compensate for glaring weaknesses. These teams can still win sometimes, but it takes a world of good fortune to make it all work for the long term.
- Luxury Problems: When a team has all the ingredients that should theoretically equate to greatness, but for one reason or another--chemistry, motivation, injuries--they can't quite put it together. These teams drive fans crazy, but the problems are still preferable to having uneven talent that relies on other teams' mistakes to thrive.
This year's Heels team is firmly in that second category. Duke's probably in the first, where they need a killer performance from Austin Rivers to beat good teams, and they have to hope they don't play a team with elite athleticism and talented big men. The Heels may never put it together, but if you could bet on either team to win in March, there's still no question who you pick.
For now, Harrison Barnes personifies this UNC team. There's all the talent in the world, but the execution is uneven. For certain stretches, Barnes looks like the best, most polished player college hoops has seen in years. For others, he floats on the perimeter, invisible and completely overrated.
The key to Carolina's title hopes comes down to distilling the better side of Barnes for six games in March, and finding a rhythm where Tyler Zeller and Harrison Barnes can dominate together. There's a lot of talent, but when it translates to the court, the finished product is uneven. If they can ever figure out how to fix that problem--with more urgency, better chemistry, better coaching, whatever--they've got as good a shot as anyone at bringing home another national title.
Right now, Carolina's stars trade off control of the team, and it can work well--it did for 39 minutes against Duke--but when it comes time to finish teams off down the stretch, there's no go-to guy.
And that's how this happened.
(slams head onto desk repeatedly)
(fights urge to mention the second half officiating)
THE BEST RIVALRY IN COLLEGE HOOPS. I know ESPN goes Defcon Tebow to promote this rivalry every year, and that alone can be enough to drive impartial fans insane. So I understand why SBN's kickass college hoops editor, Mike Rutherford, couldn't help but poke holes in the mythology on Wednesday.
But there were two points made that I can't help but answer. First:
Detractors view Duke-North Carolina the same way the general public views a presidential primary. These two have their differences and they act like they legitimately hate each other when on television, but they're essentially the same dude chasing the same top prize.
Carolina-Duke is more like a presidential election. Both basketball programs are stupidly successful and obnoxiously elite, but their governing philosophies are so historically different that calling them identical is an insult to both. Carolina's the program birthed by Dean Smith, a diehard progressive, and Duke basketball exists as a monument to Coach K, the lifelong conservative. Over time, the program's have taken on both coach's ideology. And that's to say nothing of the actual politics underpinning both schools.
And then there was this:
The public's biggest problem with Duke-UNC ... is that the claimed "hatred" between the programs doesn't seem genuine. There doesn't appear to be the same history of pure vitriol between the players, coaches or (most importantly) fan bases.
It's true. While everyone else in North Carolina (and Bristol) tries to turn this rivalry into some sort of blood feud, the principal characters can often be seen downplaying it. But that doesn't mean the hatred's not there. Take this passage, from Joe Menzer's book, Four Corners:
When he was recruiting Christian Laettner, [Dean] Smith was riding up an elevator one time with the prospect and Laettner's moth.
"What about this rivalry with Duke?" Mrs. Laettner asked Coach Smith.
"Ahhh, there's not much to it, really. They're just one of the teams in our league. Mike and I get along, the players all see each other out all the time and they get a long. It's not that big a deal," Smith said.
Then the elevator opened. Located directly across the hall from the elevator was J.R. Reid's room. Plastered all over the door were signs that read, "Duke sucks! Fuck Duke!"
Later, when Laettner went to Duke, Blue Devils fans taunted J.R. Reid with signs saying, "J.R. Can't Reid", and Smith answered them by releasing Laettner's SAT scores, which were lower than Reid's. It was an ugly moment for everyone involved, but a defining one for the rivalry. The loathing is always there, even if neither coach wants to admit as much.
There are a handful of other matchups in college hoops that absolutely deserve the attention the Carolina-Duke series gets. But Wednesday was a good reminder: None of them are quite as spectacular as this one, in part because games like that one aren't even that surprising anymore. Duke had outscored North Carolina 5,858 to 5,857 in the last 75 games before Wednesday. Now it's 5,943 to 5,941, and the ball's in North Carolina's court to respond.
With the best of rivalries, neither team can ever, ever be counted out, and that's why Duke's comeback made sense Wednesday night. North Carolina should have known better. For now, Duke can enjoy one of the most spectacular wins in the rivalry's history, and North Carolina can take solace in knowing that they're probably the better team. The best part?
A month from now they meet again in Durham, and we do it all over again.