Christian Laettner still reigns. The stakes, the drama, the 10-for-10 perfection.
But in the pantheon of Duke buzzer-beaters, only Laettner’s epic 20 years ago ranks above Austin Rivers’ dagger Wednesday night.
Perhaps you were among the 21,750 in the Dean Dome or the legions who will claim they were. Or perhaps you watched from your favorite chair or barstool.
Certainly you’ve seen the replay.
And if you stifled an audible OMG, you’re better than I.
Rivers, the Blue Devils’ acclaimed freshman guard, elevated from the right wing in the waning seconds of a furious game between top-10 neighbors and swished a 3-pointer over Tyler Zeller to slay No. 5 North Carolina 85-84.
At 7-feet, Zeller is eight inches taller than Rivers. But caught in a defensive switch after a Mason Plumlee screen, he gave the quicker Rivers space.
Rivers made him pay, setting off a wild celebration that included his father, Boston Celtics coach Doc Rivers.
“I can't explain it, man,” Austin Rivers told the Raleigh News & Observer. “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.”
The 10th-ranked Blue Devils trailed by 12 with 7:20 remaining, by 10 with 2:15 left. But turnovers by Kendall Marshall and Barnes and two missed free throws by Zeller gave them hope.
Three-pointers by Tyler Thornton and Seth Curry and two Ryan Kelly buckets set the stage for Rivers, who scored 29 points and made six of Duke’s 14 threes.
With 13.9 seconds left, Zeller missed a free throw. Plumlee rebounded and handed to Rivers, who dribbled upcourt as Reggie Bullock defended. Plumlee’s screen above the top of the key forced Zeller to switch.
“I knew he was going to shoot a three,” Tar Heels forward Harrison Barnes told the Associated Press. “I thought everyone in the gym did. Z did a good job contesting, but he made the shot.”
In the 1990 NCAA East Regional, Laettner’s last-second, left-wing jumper off an improvised inbounds play beat Connecticut 79-78 and sent Duke to its third consecutive Final Four. The Blue Devils reached the national title game but were ambushed by Nevada-Las Vegas 103-73.
With coach Mike Krzyzewski sidelined by health issues in 1995 and their season in free fall, the Blue Devils extended the second-ranked Tar Heels to double-overtime at Cameron on Jeff Capel’s OT buzzer-beater. Carolina prevailed 102-100.
Opening the 2005-06 ACC schedule at home against Virginia Tech, No. 1 Duke trailed 75-74, until Sean Dockery gathered an inbounds pass from Josh McRoberts and made a last-second 40-footer.
Rivers trumps that trio. No, this wasn’t the NCAA tournament. But this was Carolina. In the Tar Heels’ house.
This was supremely talented Carolina seeming to score at will with Zeller, Barnes and John Henson. This was Duke, stung by a Sunday home loss to Miami, making just enough threes to hang around.
“They're really good and they can knock you out,” Krzyzewski said in his postgame news conference. “And we didn't get knocked out. And as a result, we hung in there and we won the last round. I'm not sure we won the whole fight, but the last round, we did, and we won the game. But we fought the entire time. We fought a really good fight.”
Contrast that to the 1992 East Regional final, where Kentucky appeared to be little more than a speed bump on Duke’s road to college basketball’s first repeat national championship since UCLA in 1972 and ’73.
But Rick Pitino’s squad competed brilliantly and took a 103-102 lead on Sean Woods’ bank shot with 2.1 seconds remaining in overtime. You know what happened next.
Grant Hill-to-Laettner. Dribble, turn, shoot, history. The greatest college game ever.
Laettner made all 10 of his shots from the field, all 10 of his free throws.
Duke won that second consecutive title with comparably tame victories over Indiana and Michigan at the Final Four.
Most consider these Blue Devils a tick below championship caliber. Maybe those folks are right, but there’s no telling what Wednesday will do for Duke’s confidence.
“Austin was magnificent,” Krzyzewski said. “We had a play set for a three, a different three, if they hit both free throws, but when they missed the second, we wanted to go to a quick angle and he could either take it to the basket or he shot it, and he shot it and it was all net.”
All net and an all-timer.
I can be reached at 247-4636 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow me at twitter.com/DavidTeelatDP
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