Night Line: Instant Classic a Result of Duke’s Late-Game Execution, UNC’s Lack of ItPosted by EJacoby on February 9th, 2012
Evan Jacoby is a regular contributor to RTC. You can find him @evanjacoby on Twitter. Night Line will run on weeknights during the season, highlighting a major storyline development from that day’s games.
Austin Rivers’ three-ball went down for Duke at the buzzer, and Mike Krzyzewski’s team walked away with a stunning road victory in Chapel Hill on Wednesday night. This 85-84 Blue Devils win will always be remembered for the freshman guard’s late-game heroics, but there were plenty of other factors that played into the result. By now, I assume everyone has seen the shot, which will undoubtedly go down as one of the all-time great moments in the 92-year history of the Tobacco Road rivalry. But it cannot be forgotten that this game was actually not a back-and-forth classic between the two teams. North Carolina led the entire second half, including a nine-point advantage at the under-four minute timeout, and gave the game away by failing to make any winning plays down the stretch. Meanwhile, Duke was clinical from the outside and knocked down clutch shot after clutch shot, capped off by the game-winning shot by Rivers as time expired. All that was left from there was a completely silenced Dean Smith Center, an elated Blue Devils sideline, and a moment that will be replayed hundreds of times this season.
If you want to know why North Carolina blew an 11-point lead at home with 4:09 to play, the answer certainly begins with the clutch play of Duke’s Rivers. But it doesn’t end there. He had a career-high 29 points on 6-10 shooting from three, but one man cannot be solely responsible for erasing a double-figure lead in four minutes. Instead, look at the home team’s attempts to close out the game and what they did wrong, which includes three missed free throws, three offensive rebounds allowed, two turnovers, and a total of one field-goal attempted in the final four-plus minutes. Leading 79-68, UNC allowed Duke to score after a missed three with a second-chance putback. Then came the barrage of mistakes, which were incurred on offense by way of clanked free throws and lost-ball turnovers. On the other end, Duke was 6-8 from the field to close out the game with three huge three-pointers and three other deep jumpers.
Who is to blame for the North Carolina collapse? The first man to point to is Tyler Zeller, who made a trio of killer errors down the stretch. But it must be pointed out that Zeller was the player of the game up to that point, recording 23 points and 11 rebounds with two blocks and some great energy plays on both ends of the floor, including some defensive rotations that denied Duke from scoring inside after dribble penetration. He was a star on the floor in front of the many NBA scouts that flocked in to watch the game. Nonetheless, the final minute is going to be a film room nightmare for the senior center. With the score at 82-80 with 0:44 left, Zeller was fouled but only hit one of two free throws, keeping it a one-possession game. On the ensuing defensive trip, Zeller deflected a Ryan Kelly air-ball jumper into his own hoop in one of the strangest plays you’ll ever see. That made it a one-point game, and guess who got fouled on the next inbounds? ‘Z’ hit just one of two free throws to leave the door open at 84-82, and it was all over from there. Just check the highlight to see what happened next, and which Carolina defender was left with his hands down in one-on-one perimeter defense as Rivers’ shot went through for the win.
But is it all really Zeller’s fault? Why didn’t North Carolina try to inbound the ball to one of their two best free-throw shooters, P.J. Hairston or Reggie Bullock? Well, Hairston was firmly entrenched on the bench, while Bullock was on the floor but made no attempt to go get the ball. Zeller is actually the team’s third-best foul shooter at 78%, so perhaps he is the goat in that respect. But why was Zeller, a 7’0” center, the one left to defend a 6’3″ shooting guard one-on-one on the final possession of the game? He should have crowded Rivers to force him to drive or take a more difficult shot, but he hardly ever defends the three-point line during games. Either Roy Williams ordered the team to switch on the high screen, putting Zeller in that situation, or Bullock and Zeller did not execute the proper pick-and-roll defense to crowd the ball-handler and force him to make a difficult pass. And finally, can you really blame ‘Z’ for the random deflection that went in the hoop? It was a failed attempt at a hustle play, as he tried to gather in a wild miss that could have landed in Mason Plumlee’s lap.
Whatever the case may be, Duke deserves just as much credit for their tremendous late-game shooting. Say what you want about their porous defense, lack of a true point guard, and inability to play against strong front lines, but when you have multiple players capable of catching fire from three and a go-to scorer with the confidence of Rivers, then any result is possible. The 2010 National Champion Blue Devils rode mainly hot shooting and dominant offensive rebounding to their title. This year’s team does not look like it has nearly those kinds of attributes, but they just shot their way into an unlikely victory in Chapel Hill, the preseason #1 team on everyone’s list. Seth Curry hit 4-8 from deep for 15 points, Andre Dawkins hit two more threes, and Tyler Thornton played valuable minutes by running the point and defending at a high level.
Going forward, does this game reveal anything major about the state of each team? My inclination is to think that no it doesn’t; this was the first game between the two biggest rivals in the sport, and the motivation and intensity of this game is simply unlike any other. Crazy things happen in this rivalry. It’s early enough in the season that neither team is polished to its postseason form, and the two will play each other again in about a month. Carolina played great for much of the game, and we already knew that they could be an explosive offensive team featuring dominant forwards. Duke shot 14-36 from long range, but we already knew that the Blue Devils often live and die by the three. Not mentioned are Harrison Barnes and John Henson‘s combined 37 points and 20 rebounds, or Kendall Marshall‘s 14 points and eight assists, all of whom were outstanding during the second half. But none of that will be remembered, since UNC relinquished its commanding lead and let this one slip away. I still believe that this was more of an aberration than anything — if these two replayed the final five minutes of the game 50 times, the Tar Heels would win it 49 times. But in March Madness, all you need is that one time for something magical to happen and your season comes to an abrupt end. All we can do is wait and see how these teams respond to what was without question an instant classic.