"In a world of hyperbole, some things live up to their reputation."
It was either Scott Van Pelt or an ESPN copywriter that put it best to kick-off SportsCenter tonight.
Watching the 233rd installment of Duke - North Carolina reminded me of a time when life was much less complicated and this biannual match-up was discussed among friends both days before and after it was played.
Now everyone is either busy or off the radar, and neither team looks nearly as talented as they were 10-15 years ago. But when the best rivalry in college basketball provides us with another incredible finish a lot of those old friends resurface with an ALL CAPS text message, and together you're elated to fully understand the magnitude of the latest act in one of your favorite unscripted dramas.
What Austin Rivers did tonight earned a special place in Duke lore. It will be played and replayed alongside Jeff Capel's half-court heave, Jerry Stackhouse's reverse jam, and a bloodied Eric Montross standing tall at the free-throw line.
If Duke stumbles in the first weekend of this year's NCAA Tournament; if Rivers leaves after only one season on campus, neither can squash the stupendous heroics the freshman phenom pulled off with ease on February 8th of 2012 in Chapel Hill.
Entering the final seconds I remained skeptical, if not peeved by Austin Rivers' night in Chapel Hill. Despite a then game high 26-points, and shooting 5-9 from beyond the arc it didn't have the feel of an exceptional performance even though it would look like one in a box score.
Arguably the toughest player in the country to guard off the dribble, Rivers exhibited both poor shot selection and poor decision. His tendencies have been a point of discussion throughout much of the season, and those tendencies were evident early and often as the Blue Devils backed their way into a 13-point second half deficit. He took 12-foot floaters, took on multiple defenders in transition, he even took away his greatest strength by refusing to dribble penetrate, instead settling for the three-pointer.
Somehow, throughout his erratic play, Rivers continued to score and keep Duke from completely playing their way out of a comeback.
Then, with his team still within striking distance, Rivers helped his team climb back, capped off by the buzzer-beating three-pointer over a lanky seven footer who froze when he realized he was left out on an island to defend the game's final play.
While most college basketball players would shy away from taking the last shot, River squared up, kindly asked his teammates to get out of the way, told Tyler Zeller exactly what he was going to do, and delivered a punishing blow to the North Carolina Tar Heels.
"If [North Carolina] had hit the two free throws, we had set up a play for a three. A different play," head coach Mike Krzyzewski told reporters after the game. "Instead we put the ball in Austin's hands, the drive wasn't there and he hit a great shot."
Seems so simple, no?
"It's storybook for the kid." he added. "I love when someone does something special like that."
So now, with the Tar Heels 31-game home winning streak snapped, and Florida State losing to Boston College tonight, the ACC has officially turned into a three-horse race. Duke is rejuvenated, and that March 3rd rematch just became a bit of a bigger deal, too.
Thank you, Austin Rivers, for keeping old friendships and an even older rivalry alive and well.