Doc Rivers, NBA coach, is unflappable when his team has the ball down two with the clock ticking toward zero. Doc Rivers, Duke basketball dad, is a mess. "It's tougher as a parent," Rivers said. "As a coach, at least you're involved. As a parent, you're just sitting there, and you're scared the whole game."
That fear reached its crescendo Wednesday when Rivers' son, Blue Devils freshman guard Austin Rivers, emerged from behind a Mason Plumlee screen with five seconds remaining and the Blue Devils trailing by two. Rivers dribbled to the right wing.
North Carolina seven-footer Tyler Zeller stayed with Rivers. Plumlee rolled toward the basket, taking Tar Heels guard Reggie Bullock with him.
Rivers froze Zeller with a hesitation dribble. The big man's hands remained by his side. Behind Duke's bench, the elder Rivers hyperventilated. "I was going crazy," Doc Rivers said. "I was thinking, 'We've got to go here soon, son.'"
When Austin Rivers glanced up, he saw two-point-something on the clock. On the baseline, Seth Curry screamed for Rivers to shoot. Time to go, son. "You just read the play," Austin Rivers said. "You don't predetermine anything. ... The shot was there. I just took it."
The ball has just cleared Zeller's outstretched right hand. More than 21,000 sets of eyes tracked the ball in flight. It felt perfect leaving Rivers' hand. It looked perfect as it crested. Still... "You just never know," Austin Rivers said. "Anything can happen." The ball spun toward the rim ...
"I swear, the ball was in the air for like 10 minutes," he said. "When it went in, my heart jumped. It was the best feeling I've ever had in my life."
First came the mass gasp. Then came the silence. As the scoreboard clicked to its final tally -- Duke 85, North Carolina 84 -- the only sounds in the Dean Dome came from the Duke players, who piled atop Rivers on the opposite end of the court, and from the tiny clutch of Duke family members seated behind the Blue Devils' bench. Doc Rivers hugged his daughter, Callie, as she screamed.
Minutes earlier, none of this seemed possible. North Carolina led by 10 when Harrison Barnes scored with 2:35 remaining. The following five things had to happen to set up Rivers' rainbow.
• North Carolina had to miss two of its final four free throws.
• Tyler Thornton, who had shot five three-pointers and missed all five, had to bury one from the wing.
• Curry had to drill an off-balance three-pointer from just inside the left sideline. "I was shocked by it," Blue Devils coach Mike Krzyzewski said. "He was almost sitting in my lap."
• Duke forward Ryan Kelly had to miss a three-pointer, follow his shot and catch a ball bouncing directly to him before draining a baseline jumper.
• North Carolina's Zeller had to redirect a badly calibrated Kelly shot off the backboard and into the basket. How weird was the play? The ball barely even touched the net as it sailed through.
"This one hurts," North Carolina coach Roy Williams said. "The kids really played and competed and did some very good things."
Krzyzewski said he didn't think the Tar Heels ever "lost their poise." Instead, the Blue Devils simply refused to quit. He's correct. But North Carolina had Duke on the ground with its throat exposed, and the Tar Heels never delivered the decisive blow.
Zeller dominated the first half, scoring 19 points and grabbing eight rebounds en route to 23 points and 11 rebounds for the night. For the first 10 minutes, Zeller was North Carolina's offense. But the other Tar Heels soon joined Zeller on the scoreboard. Point guard Kendall Marshall slashed past Duke defenders to score or to set up easy shots for his teammates. Even without a field goal from Barnes, North Carolina hacked away at Duke's lead before finally gaining the advantage in the final minute of the first half. A Zeller block and a Barnes steal led to a Bullock layup with a second remaining, and North Carolina went into the locker room up 43-40.
Barnes, whose injured ankle bothered him in the first half, found his groove in the second. He scored 19 of his 25 points in the half, but he also committed the turnover that led to Kelly's second-chance jumper on the baseline with 1:10 remaining.
"They made the right plays, and we didn't," Barnes said. "It's just that simple."
As the Tar Heels built their lead throughout the second half, Doc Rivers leaned in and listened during timeouts. He liked what he heard from Krzyzewski.
"Coach K tonight was amazing," Doc Rivers said. "He just kept saying, 'Hang in there. Hang in there.' I bet he said that 100 times. He was right."
The Blue Devils, who lost at home on a buzzer-beater to Florida State on Jan. 21 and loafed their way to a home loss against Miami on Sunday, listened to their coach -- even when all seemed hopeless.
"[North Carolina] can knock you out, and we didn't get knocked out," Krzyzewski said. "We won the last round. I'm not sure we won the whole fight, but the last round, we did."
It took faith for the Blue Devils to play their way into a puncher's chance. Rivers seemed the natural choice to take the knockout shot.
"That's what he's been put on this earth to do," Krzyzewski said. So maybe it was destiny that in his first game in the rivalry, Rivers wrote one of its most memorable chapters.
"To hit a game-winner like that," Krzyzewski said, "is just storybook."