Stemming The Tide

By now ESPN is playing a continuos loop of Austin Rivers' buzzer beater against North Carolina. But what if that shot wasn't the biggest bucket of the season? What if it wasn't even the biggest of game?

Rivers hit the game-winning shot in the first Carolina game, but it may not have been his most important shot of the season, or even the game.

Nearly 15 minutes earlier, both were on the verge of spiraling out of control. Duke's lead for most of the first half was a distant memory as Carolina surged to take the lead at the break, then picked up where they left off after halftime.

With 15:08 remaining, Harrison Barnes hit a three-pointer giving Carolina a 13-point lead, their largest of the game. On the next trip down court, Rivers responded with a three of his own.

When Barnes scored again 30 seconds later, Rivers again hit a three, cutting the lead back to nine. A few minutes later, Barnes again put the Heels on top by a dozen, and again, Rivers responded with a three-pointer. He wouldn't make another until one second remained.

They were a few snapshots in a lead that bounced back-and-forth around 10 points for much of the second half, but without them, there might not be any last-second heroics.

"If he doesn't hit those, we have a chance to lose by 20, while playing well," Mike Krzyzewski said as the team prepared for the rematch. "He stemmed the tide."

It seems counter-intuitive on the surface: A few threes make the difference between a blowout loss and a remarkable comeback that doesn't start until eight minutes later. However, the game's storyline might be a microcosm for the season—a season Krzyzewski has called one of his most unusual ever.

"We've consistently learned more about ourselves," he said. "As opposed to a national championship team, where we know what to expect."

Over and over, this season, Krzyzewski and his assistants have said that the team, "was playing well," both as a whole and on an individual basis. But they've also called the team "a work in progress" most of the year, as Coach K pressed buttons and made moves to get the team to mesh.

"I've always had to figure out what's the best approach for a team," Krzyzewski said after the win at Wake Forest that clinched a perfect ACC road record. "With this team, I've had to figure it out every day."

As Krzyzewski has pointed out recently, the team has a 26-4 record and will play for the ACC regular season title and a possible number one seed in the NCAA tournament. It's hard to imagine that such a team could have teetered on the brink of disaster—just as it's hard to imagine that cutting a lead to 10 or 9 could make a 21 point difference in the end result.

The Rivers three-pointers not only stemmed the tide of the Carolina game, they may have stemmed the tide of the season. At the time, Duke was coming off an overtime home loss to Miami, after which, Krzyzewski sounded frustrated and pessimistic.

"You can't cheat the game," he said in his postgame press conference. Then he told everyone to go onto the Cameron floor and look at the banners. "There are quite a few up there," he said, "and they were not won without energy, without hunger and without people really wanting it."

The team could have gone either way at that point. A 20-point loss to their rival in the next game, and the team could have looked up at the banners and concluded they couldn't measure up, and would never want it like those teams did.

And without the Carolina comeback under their belt, the NC State game might have ended differently, as well as close battles against FSU and Virginia Tech. It's not hard to imagine the team's current 7-game win streak being a 4-3 or 3-4 run instead, putting Duke in the position where Virginia currently resides—likely in the tournament, but with a tough path ahead from their likely middle-of-the-road seeding.

Rivers' shots weren't the only time when the Blue Devils' season likely swung in the balance. Mason Plumlee and Andre Dawkins made key shots in the season opener, after Belmont cut a 13-point Duke lead to 1, and a Tyler Thornton steal and pass to Austin Rivers gave them enough breathing room to survive in a one-point victory.

A blown lead and home loss at that point could have been a torpedo to the team's confidence. It's hard to imagine the team surviving a Michigan State rally at the Garden four days later. Perhaps Krzyzewski's record-breaking win would have come in a Maui Invitational consolation game if a shot or two didn't fall against Belmont.

Early in the season, as Krzyzewski prepared to catch and pass Bob Knight on the career coaching list, he explained why he was downplaying the significance of the record. "There's plenty of time to reflect on that," he said, "but this is the only time I have to develop my team."

Instead, the development has been a year-long process—one that dodged plenty of bullets along the way.

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