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.
[Slideshow: Duke celebrates stunning win over North Carolina]
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.
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