CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — With the final seconds ticking off the clock, Austin Rivers had already played the game of his life on the season’s biggest stage. But the Blue Devils still trailed by two, and the 6-foot-4 freshman stood dribbling on the right wing, guarded by 7-foot senior Tyler Zeller.
Looking first at the clock, then the imposing body in front of him, Rivers subtly jabbed, creating all the space he needed to swish a 3-pointer and give Duke an 85-84 victory over North Carolina at the Dean E. Smith Center.
Although the play was designed for Rivers to attack the lane and attempt to draw a foul, the guard came off Mason Plumlee’s pick and exploited his quickness advantage against Zeller, who could not reach his attempt.
“The team, they had a lot of confidence in me,” Rivers said. “Once Zeller switched I thought ‘Oh my gosh, I’ve got Zeller on me.’ I just looked up and saw the time, did my little jab and shot it.”
Rivers finished the game with a career-high 29 points on 9-of-16 shooting, with 18 of his points coming from beyond the arc, where he was 6-of-10, as the No. 10 Blue Devils (20-4, 7-2 in the ACC) matched a season high with 14 3-pointers.
The No. 5 Tar Heels (20-4, 7-2), who had led every second of the second half until Rivers’ buzzer-beater dropped, stood shocked in the middle of a silent crowd that had witnessed a 10-point lead vanish in just over two minutes.
“I’ve never seen an arena stunned like that,” Seth Curry said. “It was great. It was quiet as can be. That’s what you want to do when you come into a hostile environment.”
North Carolina had led by as many as 13 points in the second half and consistently held a margin of at least seven for the majority of the period. With 2:38 remaining, Harrison Barnes—who scored 19 of his 25 points in the final 20 minutes—extended the Tar Heel lead to 10 points, seemingly putting the game out of reach.
But, after Ryan Kelly missed a 3-pointer on the next possession, Duke recovered the ball and Tyler Thornton launched it from deep, making the first and only of his six attempts from beyond the arc. 17 seconds later, Mason Plumlee stole the ball from the usually infallible Kendall Marshall.
Moments later, Seth Curry drained a transition 3-pointer to bring the game within four points at the 1:48 mark.
“I thought that shot by Seth was really worth more,” head coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “I was shocked by it. He was almost sitting in my lap. He was really far out, and he didn’t have his feet completely set. He just nailed it.”
After Kelly drew a charge on Barnes, forcing another North Carolina turnover, the 6-foot-11 Raleigh native lined up a second consecutive time from deep, only to miss. The long rebound came right to him, and he calmly drilled a pull-up jumper along the baseline, making it 82-80.
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Zeller, who finished with 23 points, 19 of which came in the first half, then made one of two free throws leading up to a very strange sequence that placed the Blue Devils down by one with 14 seconds to play. Kelly airballed from deep, and even though he thought he was fouled on the attempt, his effort was rewarded by a stroke of good fortune as Zeller batted the airball into the hoop, bringing the Blue Devils within one.
Thornton fouled Zeller just two seconds later, and the post player made the first of his two attempts, only to miss the second. Mason Plumlee grabbed the rebound and immediately fed Rivers, setting up his last second heroics.
“With three minutes left when everybody thought we were going to lose, we just kept fighting,” Rivers said. “I shot it with confidence and God put the ball in the rim.”
Despite trailing for almost the entire second half, the Blue Devils maintained a small lead for almost all of the first 20 minutes. Barnes made two free throws with 44 seconds remaining, however, to give the Tar Heels a 41-40 lead.
North Carolina entered the locker room at the break with a three-point lead, one they would not surrender until the game’s final seconds.
“It hurts a lot,” Tar Heel forward John Henson said. “We had control of the game the whole time, and they came back – it’s a crazy game.”
Henson and Zeller controlled the paint throughout the entire contest, grabbing 42 rebounds compared to Duke’s 35. Henson received credit for 17 of those, matching a season-high.
The fate of the game, though, rested on Duke’s outside shooting, where its success fluctuated. After going 7-of-17 in the first half, the Blue Devils went cold, going just 4-of-14 at one point in the second half. But, their comeback came as they made three of their last four from deep, giving them just enough to come out on top.
This victory comes as a part of an emotional rollercoaster for Duke, which had come back from a double-digit second-half deficit against Miami at Cameron Indoor Stadium Sunday, only to fall in overtime 78-74.
Tonight’s win for Duke, though, ranks among the most dramatic in college basketball’s most storied rivalry, with a freshman playing the lead role.
“To hit a game-winner like that is storybook,” Krzyzewski said. “For me, that’s one of the best ones.”
For more photos of Duke's win, check out our photo blog, Shutter.