Four days after the one year anniversary of Austin Rivers’ buzzer-beating 3-pointer to defeat North Carolina in Chapel Hill, Duke fans were treated to another fantastic finish in a tradition unique to the Tobacco Road rivalry.
The night before the 235th matchup between the Blue Devils and Tar Heels, the teams’ respective managers took the floor at Cameron Indoor Stadium—an annual showcase of their skills on the hardwood.
With the score tied at 52-52 and 7.5 seconds remaining in the contest, sophomore head coach Mike Sotsky called a timeout and drew up Duke’s final play. Sophomore Ian McKiernan beat his man off the dribble and found his colleague and classmate Graham Vehovec wide open in the opposite corner.
Vehovec hoisted a 3-pointer that splashed into the net to give Duke a 55-52 victory as time expired. The Cameron Crazies on hand stormed the court in celebration for the first time since Sean Dockery hit a 45-foot buzzer-beater against Virginia Tech in Dec. 2005.
“You talk about it, and you say, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if?’ But you never expect anything to go like that,” Sotsky said. “An unbelievable play at the end by Ian. At the beginning of the game Ian was taking a lot of contact and was thrown off, but to make that play at the end, that’s the kind of player Ian is. He’s a competitor. Everyone on this team is a competitor, and they’re fighters.”
Sotsky’s coaching prowess was on display throughout the game, calling his team’s plays and exuding confidence in the huddle. His poise along with many of his mannerisms were eerily reminiscent of the man he works for, Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski.
“I like to think that he would be proud of the way we played tonight,” Sotsky said. “He’s an unbelievable coach, and you learn so much just from being at practice. Everything that we did out here tonight, we learned from him.”
Although the managers normally take on similar jobs for their respective teams, there was no love lost on the hardwood—the rivalry between Duke and North Carolina knows no boundaries. Trash talking, physicality and even a little floor slapping were on display throughout the contest, which can only be expected of a matchup between the Blue Devils and Tar Heels.
At one point during the game after a near altercation between the teams, sophomore point guard Quinn Cook ran from the baseline to the bench, wrapping up one of his managers in an embrace and complimenting him on his intensity.
The game’s second half swung back and forth, with both teams executing in their halfcourt offenses. The Blue Devils executed halfcourt sets straight out of Krzyzewski’s playbook, the result of nearly a week of practices prior to the game. Junior Jamie Stark controlled the paint for the Blue Devils, fighting through contact from defenders to convert inside buckets.
The game seemed to be securely in Duke’s hands when it took a 50-42 lead with less than three minutes to play. But an 8-0 North Carolina run kept the Blue Devils fighting until the bitter end.
“Someone’s got to send that to ESPN. That has got to be on ESPN tomorrow,” sophomore Sean Kelly said. “We had a legitimate court-storming victory here tonight, I’ve never been a part of anything like that. That was comparable to rushing the field against North Carolina in football. And it was all the fans that made it happen.”
In addition to knocking down a number of timely 3-pointers in the second half, Kelly’s play was also the only time that Duke fans will get to see a No. 34 on the court for the Blue Devils this week. Kelly, who is the younger brother of senior forward Ryan Kelly, works alongside his brother as a basketball manager and showcased bits and pieces of his older brother’s game on the court Tuesday night.
“That was a little shoutout for him,” Sean Kelly said. “I didn’t play much basketball in high school, but when I heard we were going to get uniforms, I got dibs on 34 pretty fast.”
Ryan Kelly was on hand to watch his younger brother along with a number of his Blue Devil teammates, including Alex Murphy, Josh Hairston, Rasheed Sulaimon, Todd Zafirovski and Tyler Thornton as well as Chelsea Gray and Tricia Liston of the Duke women’s basketball team. The group was particular supportive of the team’s three senior managers, Kyle Mumma, Kate Wheelock and John McGinty, who all started the game for the Blue Devils.
When Vehovec’s final shot ripped through the nets, it was a role reversal for some of the most recognizable figures on Duke’s campus, who stormed their own home court to celebrate a victory by the managers who wipe up their sweat off that very floor.