Rivers suddenly possesses an immense legacy

DEAN SMITH CENTER/CHAPEL HILL — No snotty freshman can sashay into the illustrious Dean Dome and hand North Carolina its severed head in thrilling, soul-usurping fashion, right?

Well, not until last night. Capping a legendary comeback that revived his team from a 10-point deficit with under three minutes to play, Austin Rivers swished a three-pointer as time expired to vaporize the Smith Center crowd and give Duke what likely will be remembered as its best win in the rivalry’s history.

How did this happen?

Because I’m on the UNC beat, I’ll tackle this question from the perspective of what went wrong for the Tar Heels. First, a look at the box score reveals Carolina advantages across multiple categories: field goal percentage, free throws and free throw percentage, rebounds, assists, turnovers and blocks.

Given all that and considering that the Heels were defending their home turf against an opponent that already has lost two games at Cameron this season, again — how could this happen?

Most fans and media understandably are pointing to Carolina’s inability to execute during the final minutes, as well as crediting (sometimes grudgingly) Duke’s poise and hot shooting. It was like downloading a highly desired, rare movie and getting the spinning wheel of death with only three percent remaining.

But the fact that the game was competitive at all late speaks to the larger problem: Duke simply crushed UNC from the three-point line. The Blue Devils shot 14-for-36 on threes, a remarkable number of attempts given that Carolina knew what Duke would attempt to accomplish offensively.

Worse, the Heels converted just 1-for-6 on threes themselves. In today’s game, beating an elite team with such an anemic figure proves extremely difficult. Note that Carolina’s season-ending defeat last season to Kentucky also resulted largely from threes, and losses to UNLV and Florida State this season featured a disparity from deep as well.

Harrison Barnes enjoyed a terrific second half last night to finish with 25 points, but he hasn’t shot threes as effectively as he did last season. Reggie Bullock is a pretty good shooter but attempted only one against Duke, Kendall Marshall is a known non-shooter, and freshman P.J. Hairston — after a torrid start — has made just 6-for-35 (17 percent) from long-range during ACC play.

Carolina’s dual ACL injuries also are beginning to show up more substantially. Junior Leslie McDonald would have offered firepower off the bench, and Dexter Strickland was the team’s best defensive player, the natural match-up against Rivers and an excellent transition scorer. His absence also forces Roy Williams to play Marshall heavier minutes than he’d prefer, including 38 versus the Devils.

Duke fans meet the returning heroes.

And there’s still the final act to discuss. Tyler Zeller became the tragic hero, achieving Sean May excellence in the first half only to miss free throws late, accidentally tip in a Duke miss and then fail to close out on Rivers on the final shot. One reasonably can question why Carolina didn’t send a double team at Rivers to force him to pass the ball — a two-pointer would have sent the game into overtime, at worst — but even so Zeller afforded him too much space.

As for the precocious freshman, he wagged his tongue at fans and UNC players all night. While his legend grew in equal parts to the hatred now rising around him (think Christian Laettner), you simply have to extend credit for delivering one of the most impressive performances by an opposing player in Smith Center history. He racked up 29 points on several mesmerizing jump shots, but the dagger will live in history.

From UNC’s perspective, mental resolve now becomes an issue. The Heels host slow-it-down Virginia on Saturday, a certain opportunity to drop another game. Carolina’s chance to earn a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament realistically has disappeared, unless the Heels can win out and defeat Duke in the rematch — and even that feat may not be sufficient.

Carolina now stands in a three-way tie with the Blue Devils and Florida State atop the ACC, but the Heels dropped each of those head-to-head contests. Click here to view the UNC/Duke box score.