Thursday, February 9, 2012

River's Buzzer Beater Steals a Win for Duke at UNC

How many UNC fans have their hands on their head?

I have to admit to letting my emotions get the best of me last night, I also have to admit I am not going to do the "game diary" thing I talked about yesterday.  Here is one of the biggest games of every year for Duke, against UNC the arch rival, the hated Tar Heels.  Two top ten teams (mainly because there aren't many good teams in college basketball this year) battling it out for bragging rights and a conference title.  I am sitting downstairs in my house, Mrs. Duke is long asleep having given up on Duke as they fell down 10 in the second half, she didn't want to sit and watch with me as I stewed in my sports depression realizing just how mediocre this year's Duke team was, so she gave up and I can't blame her.

So I am there alone, pissed, wondering how far I'd go in ripping Duke today on STOB as they were down 10 still with only 2 minutes to play.  Then, it happened.  After 38 minutes of Duke showing their flaws, UNC showed their's and it was just long enough to turn last night's game into an instant classic and me from a pissed off, humbled Duke fan into the definition of what most people hate about Duke fans; giving the middle finger to Kendall Marshall on the TV as he looked on in shock as Austin Rivers stared down the UNC fan's after drilling the game winner.  Yelling at the TV, "F you Kendall, suck it Barnes, you suck Roy!  Go cry about it you Droopy dog look alike!"...I am not proud of myself, but as I said, I let the emotions get the best of me.

It's odd, River's shot doesn't fix many of Duke's flaws.  They still, as much as Mason Plumlee has improved, don't have a go to guy inside the paint.  As good as Austin Rivers is at penetrating the paint, they still rely way too much on the three point shot (36 of their 62 shot attempts last night were 3 pt shots).  They can't guard anyone with any type of athleticism on the perimeter and keep them out of the paint.  Duke can't match up with any type of physical small forward like Harrison Barnes as they don't have a true small forward on the team, just a bunch of PG/SG tweeners and shooting guards.  The roster still just doesn't fit together all that well, leading to offensive dysfunction at times.  They still aren't sure how to get Austin Rivers into the game without just giving him the ball and saying, "Alright, you just go and do everything for 5 minutes then we'll go back to running our normal offense after that stops working."  There are even more issues, yet after the entire game Wednesday pointed all of those issues out, the River's shot makes it all easy to forget and gives me still some hope for this team.

UNC on the other hand was on their game for most of this one.  Sure they trailed most of the first half and weren't playing great perimeter defense, but they never play great defense except for those rare couple games a year where you watch them and think, "Nobody can beat this team!"  Even with that bad perimeter defense UNC was showcasing that even without Harrison Barnes playing well in the first, they have two of the most talented bigs in the country in Zeller and Henson.  Zeller carried UNC through the first, dominating Mason Plumlee and anything he missed Henson cleaned up on the offensive boards.  Then the second half came around and Barnes joined the party and UNC was off and running and it seemed about to roll Duke by 20.  They never broke Duke's back though and Rivers just kept answering Barnes shot for shot to keep Duke within striking distance.  The final few minutes is where UNC showed their major flaws.

For UNC, they are playing best when they aren't running half court sets, they are pushing the ball with Marshall and he is either hitting Zeller on a quick post up, or finding Barnes streaking in for layups, pull ups or threes.  The issue is, when a game tightens a bit for UNC, that is where they are least comfortable.  The Tar Heels for some odd reason forget about Zeller, and instead try to just let Barnes go and do his thing one on one or settle for an outside jumper.  UNC just looks more and more uncomfortable the further the shot clock winds down.  In the last few possessions they weren't getting great shots out of their offense and with that allowed Duke to get closer and closer.  This is why in the past, we have seen very talented UNC teams lose in the tournament, when (and it is almost inevitable) a game gets close and you need to take some time and can't be all run and gun, UNC loses their flow and mojo and can't convert.

A huge part of that for this current roster is forgetting how unstoppable Tyler Zeller can be on the inside for UNC.  After scoring 19 points in the first half, Zeller had only 4 in the second half.  This has happened in quite a few UNC games I've watched during his career at UNC and it has always made me ask, why?  I don't know the answer but, in those late game, melting the clock moments, I would go inside to Zeller and not one on one with Barnes if I am UNC.

I spoke earlier about how River's game winner now gives me hope for Duke moving forward, even though up to this point they were to me just a mediocre Duke product.  This is the type of game from Rivers that will now give him the status as, "The Guy", for Duke.  He was already leading them in scoring, and he I think in his mind kind of felt he was already "The Guy", but I am not sure the rest of the team, or Coach K even, had bought in as well.  Tonight he won the game for Duke, and not just in his final shot, but in the entire second half when nobody else on Duke could have created shots for themselves, Rivers took the game over for Duke and kept them in striking distance.

In recent memory it has been very rare for Duke not to have an obvious, "The Guy".  Last year it was Nolan Smith, until Kyrie came back from injury in the tournament, then there was once again a question about it and down they went to Arizona.  The championship year prior to that it was Jon Scheyer, back further Redick, Jay Williams, Elton Brand, Laettner, Dawkins...blah blah you get it.  The down year's for Duke has been when they don't have that guy, and up to this point this year that has been the case for Duke.  Sure they are talented as all get out, but there wasn't a belief that Rivers was that guy.  My hope for this team now is that after this moment in a game they had no business winning, Rivers now emerges as that guy the rest of the year, and that allows the rest of the team to fall into their roles from there.  We will see if Rivers builds on this performance against Maryland on Saturday, or if he goes back to taking bad shots, being immature and not fitting in with the team, leading to overall roster dysfunction.

Both teams showed their flaws, UNC proved they were the better team for 38 minutes and their flaws were enough on this night along with some luck, a non call on Curry's travelling three and huge cojones by Rivers to lose a game they should have won.

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