Duke defeats UNC 85-84 on Rivers' buzzer-beater

Duke's Rivers drowns Tar Heels with the last of six 3-pointers in his debut game against UNC.

acarter@newsobserver.comFebruary 9, 2012 

— There have been some wild, crazy endings to North Carolina-Duke games over the 233-game history of the rivalry, and Duke's 85-84 victory Wednesday night at the Smith Center will take its place as one of the craziest and most memorable of all - if not the most.

Tar Heels sophomore Harrison Barnes gave his team an 82-72 lead with 2 minutes, 38 seconds to play, and the game appeared over. Writers on press row went back to the media room to write their stories, the fans in attendance waited for the seconds to melt away, and even the Tar Heels themselves appeared content to go through the motions, too.

But it wasn't over.

Minutes later, after a furious rally that placed the result in doubt, Duke's Austin Rivers made a long 3-pointer from the right side as the final buzzer sounded. The shot gave the No. 10 Blue Devils an improbable victory, and they spilled from their bench and onto the court as people - fans, Tar Heels players, mostly everybody - sat in a stunned stupor.

"I can't explain it, man," Rivers said. "To play in this game, they have a great crowd, great tradition here. They had us down. I think, obviously, this is my favorite win I've ever had in my life."

Rivers, a freshman, finished with 29 points in his Duke-UNC debut, and his final 3 was the sixth one he made Wednesday night. As expected, Duke (20-4, 7-2 ACC) relied on the 3 early and often, and relied on it most of all in the final minutes.

The rally, one they'll be talking about for as long as they play these games, happened like this: Trailing by 10 with about two minutes to play, Duke went on a 10-2 run that cut No. 5 North Carolina's lead to 84-82 with 14 seconds to play.

Tyler Thornton and Seth Curry made 3s during that stretch, and North Carolina turned it over twice and missed two free throws. Ryan Kelly, meanwhile, made two shots, one of them a tipped-in air ball on a 3 that deflected off of Tyler Zeller's hand, off the backboard and through the basket.

All the while, the sense of jubilation that had permeated the building most of the night left, replaced by a feeling of dread.

North Carolina coach Roy Williams said he'd never seen such a play as that one - one of his own players tipping in the shot of another team in the final moments of tight, tense game. But then again, Williams said, this was UNC-Duke.

"We had been closing games pretty well," Williams said. "But we didn't tonight."

After that strange deflected tip-in, Duke fouled Zeller again and, again, he made just one of two free throws. That set up Rivers' shot at the buzzer. He made it from a few feet behind the 3-point line, over Zeller.

North Carolina led by as many as 13 with 15:06 to play in the second half. At the same point in the first half Duke held its largest lead, by eight, but the Tar Heels controlled the end of the half and led 43-40 at halftime.

"We fought like crazy to stay close," Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. "And then in the last couple of minutes, we got hot."

Krzyzewski described it as a "storybook" ending and said, "for me, that's one of the best ones" in the history of the rivalry. Moments earlier, Williams had sat in the same chair, with tears welling in his eyes, trying to explain something he couldn't.

"This one hurts," he said.

Barnes, playing with an injured left ankle that had him limited throughout practice this week, finished with a team-high 25. He scored 19 in the second half. Zeller finished with 23 - 19 in the first half - and Kelly and Curry added 15 apiece for the Blue Devils.

North Carolina (20-4, 7-2) controlled the interior and Duke worked the perimeter. The Blue Devils attempted 36 3-pointers and made 14. The last one glided through the rim, passing through the net and into the lore and legend of this long rivalry.

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