Commentary

Austin Rivers lives up to the moment

Originally Published: February 8, 2012
By Eamonn Brennan | ESPN.com

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- Six … Five …

The seconds melted away. Austin Rivers kept dribbling.

Mason Plumlee was under the rim, another among the nearly 22,000 people crammed inside the Dean E. Smith Center, as helpless as each and every one. Later, he'd admit it: He was a little worried. He trusted Austin. It's just that, well, those seconds were vanishing, and there Rivers was, dribbling them away. What if he missed? Would Plumlee have a chance to get a rebound?

"What is he doing?" Plumlee thought. "Is he going to shoot it?"

Four …

Seth Curry wasn't going to stand by and wait. He screamed at Rivers: "Shoot it! Shoot it!" It was futile. The crowd was too loud. No way Rivers could hear him. Would he get it off in time?

Three … Two …

That's when Doc Rivers knew. He'd seen it before. His son had set things up this way: He had forced UNC center Tyler Zeller into an uncomfortable switch, and now he had the big man right where he wanted. Doc's son was hesitating on purpose, waiting for the 7-foot Zeller to back up -- just enough to see the rim, just enough to give it a chance.

[+] EnlargeAustin Rivers
AP Photo/Jim R. BoundsAustin Rivers' 3-pointer at the buzzer completed a late 10-point rally by the Blue Devils.

One …

It hung up in the air the way last-second shots do, floating through space at its own leisure, blissfully unaware of its brief journey's consequence. For half a second -- no more -- the arcing, dropping basketball was the only thing in the arena in motion. Twenty-two thousand froze in their seats. Some covered their eyes. The Dean Dome was underwater, muffled, a slow-motion scene from a cheesy action movie. Time played tricks.

Zero …

And then, just like that, it was over. Duke 85. Carolina 84. Austin Rivers had just played the most important -- and the longest -- six seconds of his life.

"I swear the ball was in the air for like 10 minutes," Rivers said. "My heart dropped. I shot it with confidence, but when I was walking back it looked good and I was like, 'Please go in.'

"When it went in, my heart jumped. It was the best feeling I've ever had in my life."

Rivers' frequent use of the word "heart" feels appropriate. Of all the qualities he displayed Wednesday night -- the deep range, the twitchy speed, that tightrope ballhandling, the things that made him one of the most highly touted Duke freshmen in recent memory -- Rivers' heart, and the heart of his teammates, was the one that mattered most.

The Blue Devils looked dead more than once in the second half, at the mercy of a team too strong on the boards, too fast on the break, too good in too many ways, just too much. But each time the Tar Heels looked set to finally, forcefully pull away, Rivers hit a big 3 to keep them alive.

In the process, he made six 3s (five more than the entire UNC team), scored a career-high 29 points -- the most any Duke freshman has ever scored against North Carolina -- and answered every question this game has asked about his ability, his decision-making, his toughness and his will.

Oh, and he became a Duke legend. There's that, too.

"It's amazing what can happen when you have courage," Rivers said.

That's the word Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski wrote on the chalkboard before the game: Courage. Curry used a different term: Faith.

However you choose to describe it, Duke had it, scrapping and clawing its way back from 12 points back, then 10, then 13, then 10, then seven, then four. The Blue Devils needed a little help from the three would-be stars of the game, too: Zeller, Kendall Marshall and Harrison Barnes led the Tar Heels throughout, but Marshall's errant pass led to a Plumlee steal and a Curry 3. Barnes, so peerless throughout the second half, charged into Ryan Kelly on an overzealous drive. Zeller, so dominant all night, missed key free throws and contributed a strange and brutally unlucky tip-in of a wayward Ryan Kelly shot.

[+] EnlargeKendall Marshall
Streeter Lecka/Getty ImagesThe Heels looked ready to coast to victory against the hated Blue Devils -- and then it all fell apart.

In the final two minutes and 38 seconds, Duke erased a 10-point UNC lead. In that time span, the Heels not only didn't make a shot -- they didn't even attempt a shot. The final four possessions consisted of two turnovers and a pair of 1-for-2 free throw sequences.

The Dean Dome crowd could do little but wail and gnash and feel the nerves overcome what had been, for the 37 minutes and 22 seconds that preceded it, an expected and warranted coronation.

Without those two minutes and 38 seconds -- without Duke's hot shooting and timely plays and poise and self-belief -- Rivers' final six seconds never happen.

He was the key throughout. For much of the season, the prodigal freshman has been criticized for not living up to the hype that accompanied his arrival in Durham. He was too inconsistent, too prone to bad decisions, too willing to force his own offense, too weak on the defensive end.

He's been called overrated, erratic, even selfish. Rivers would unload bad 3s. He would drive the lane and force it up. He would miss open teammates, or he would be too keen to find them, or he'd get caught somewhere in between.

At times, the judgments -- harsh though they were -- were accurate.

Rivers was a gunner, a high school scorer who couldn't adapt to the rigors of the college game. He was too hyped, too used to being the star, too accustomed to having everything come easy. At least that's what everyone said.

Perhaps we've been spoiled. We're used to dominant freshmen in college hoops. Kevin Durant, Derrick Rose, John Wall, Kevin Love, Michael Beasley, Jared Sullinger -- throughout the one-and-done era, when a player arrives with Rivers' brand of hype, we expect him to live up to it, and quickly. If he doesn't, the dreaded b-word -- bust -- is applied in short order. Our patience is nonexistent.

But maybe Rivers -- like the player across from him Wednesday night, Barnes -- simply needed what so many 19-year-olds need: time to grow.

"He has grown," his dad, Boston Celtics coach Doc Rivers, told ESPN.com after the game. "They've done a great job with him here. He's always scored. But to do it at this level, to be efficient with it, to take a game on like this -- he's just really grown, and you can see it. It's just a proud, proud moment."

"All freshmen are going to have their ups and downs," added Curry. "But we have faith in him."

That faith was rewarded on this night, and the reward was so much more than a win. Consider where this team was, where it appeared to be going: The Blue Devils' most recent game was a home loss to Miami, their second loss at Cameron Indoor Stadium in the past five games. Just three weeks ago, Duke was handed a similar defeat thanks to Florida State guard Michael Snaer's last-second 3.

Coach K's team was playing the program's worst defense of the past decade; it entered the game ranked No. 9 in the ACC in adjusted defensive efficiency. It couldn't rebound, it couldn't get stops and it was playing a national title contender that would be exploiting those very characteristics.

The challenge appeared insurmountable. To win, Duke's offense would have to keep the pace. It would have to get big performances from, well, everyone. And something special -- something worthy of this storied rivalry -- would have to unfold.

"To hit a game winner like that," Krzyzewski said, "is storybook. That's one of the best games [these two teams] have ever played."

Coach K has a way of downplaying the big moment, of treating the biggest and best games like just another day at the office. But even he couldn't downplay this one. Frankly, why try?

[+] EnlargeAustin Rivers
Chuck Liddy/Getty ImagesFrom despair to exhilaration -- it all happened so quickly for the Duke Blue Devils.

Thanks to Rivers, this game, that finish, that arcing 3 that hung in the air for 10 minutes -- and every moment that led up to it -- will become one of the all-time capital-M moments in a rivalry with too many to count already. Duke will remember it forever. UNC will do its best to forget.

And Rivers -- ballyhooed and beleaguered, embraced and dismissed -- will see his unlikely name etched in Duke-Carolina lore forever.

"It took me a minute to realize what just happened," Curry said. "It was just … surreal."

"I had no idea what he was doing," Plumlee said, laughing and shaking his head. "But Austin knew exactly what he was doing. What a …"

Plumlee paused. He took a second.

"Just … what a win."

How quickly can doubt become faith? How swiftly can defeat become victory? How soon can one shot become history?

Turns out, all it takes is six seconds.

Five …

Four …

Three …

Two …

One …

Eamonn Brennan covers college basketball for ESPN.com. You can see his work in the College Basketball Nation blog. To contact Eamonn, e-mail collegebasketballnation@gmail.com or reach him on Twitter (@eamonnbrennan).