Seriously, what just happened?
No, I understate things. That hurt a lot. Indescribably so. It will scar me, and I was just innocently watching from the comfort of my couch. I can't imagine what the anguish is for those who actually played. UNC did everything right for most of the game. They fell behind early to a barrage of scoring from Austin Rivers, but switched the defense up, putting Reggie Bullock on him instead of Harrison Barnes, and then clawed their way back. Duke was completely shut down for the last five minutes of the first half, and the Heels extended that into the second. Within a few minutes, UNC was up by ten and in complete control.
And then things just... stagnated. UNC didn't play particularly poorly, and Duke didn't play particularly well, but the lead just kind of stuck around ten. Tyler Zeller went out with four fouls, but the offense didn't really sputter; Harrison Barnes, after a frustrating first half kicked it into high gear and... the lead remained around ten. Rivers got a second wind, and the lead remained around ten.
Then the last three minutes happened.
Duke was still doing everything wrong at this point. They give it to Kelly for a three, but he's exhausted; it doesn't even reach the rim. But John Henson is deemed to have blocked it, and it's Duke ball. Tyler Thornton (!) makes a three. UNC timeout, seven point game Mason Plumlee gets a steal at half court on the next possession and the ball finds its way to a traveling Seth Curry. Another three, and it's a four point game. Harrison Barnes drives on the other end, stumbles after contact with Thornton, and is whistled with the charge.
Duke again elects to give Ryan Kelly another three-point attempt. He misses, of course. But the rebound finds its way back to Kelly, and even he can hit a baseline jumper. Suddenly, it's 82-80. Mason Plumlee immediately fouls Tyler Zeller. Zeller makes one of two free throws. 83-80.
Duke decides to give Ryan Kelly a third crack at a three pointer. It is again, way, way off. But in going for the rebound, Tyler Zeller tips it into the basket. All of basketball is confused, and it's a one-point game. But Tyler Zeller is fouled immediately. Tyler Zeller is a 79% free throw shooter. Tyler Zeller has already missed three of his nine free throws tonight. The team as a whole has missed 8 of 24, many of them front ends of one-and-ones. Tyler Zeller only makes one of his last two.
But it's a two point game, and Duke is bringing the ball up. Duke hasn't really done much to move the ball around. The only have eight assists on the entire night. And the defense is strong. The Blue Devils can't get near the three-point line. They're forced to call a timeout.
Out of the timeout, Duke still has nothing. Dawkins isn't open. Curry isn't open. Rivers gets a half-hearted screen from Mason Plumlee... and Reggie Bullock doesn't go through it. Bullock is now defending Plumlee, who's gotten maybe one entry pass all evening, and not from Rivers, who won't give it up unless forced. Rivers is being guarded by Zeller. Rivers doesn't make a move. Rivers doesn't look to pass. Rivers jacks up a three over a seven-footer from a step or two behind the arc.
And the fucking thing goes in.
It's a horrible, freakish, epic collapse. We're all sentenced to see it replayed for the rest of our lives, during every Carolina game. It obliterates what had been a very good game for Carolina, played at the head-whipping tempo they like. Kendall Marshall's terrific game – man is it fun to drive into a lane filled with Plumlees – with its 14 points and 8 assists is moot. Barnes' terrific second half, where after being held almost scoreless in the first he would finish with 25 points, is wiped away. Double-doubles from both Zeller and Henson are forgotten. Because of those last few minutes.
It didn't register as a collapse at the time. It was nothing like, say, Georgetown in 2007, which haunts me to this day. It was a death by a thousand cuts, a steady trickle of missed free throws and plays unfinished. The anger is just now setting in as I type, a good half-hour after the game. This whole thing is a travesty.
My one hope is the knowledge that the players have to be hurt infinitely more by this. That it has to just eat at them. The Florida State loss was an embarrassment, but shame can only motivate you so much. To lose like this, at home, in so painful a manner, to watch Austin Rivers run down the court celebrating, only to realize he was running away from the only group of people out of 20,000 who didn't want to punch him in the throat – that hurts. That festers. That is the kind of loss that burns the resolve to never lose again into a team. This is the sort of thing that forges a team, and spurs them on to leave destruction in their wake the rest of the way.
Or so I hope. Because I can't take any more losses like this.