Thad: Moving On

Sometimes you just have to shake the other guy's hand and move on.

Of course, that's difficult when the other guy is the new arch-villain, almost straight out of central casting, of your favored team's archrival.

But the fact is Austin Rivers earned a permanent place in the annals of the Duke-Carolina rivalry, not only with his game-winning shot over Tyler Zeller but with an overall performance that single-handedly kept the Blue Devils in the ballgame.

From a Carolina point of view, the result is of course sickening. The Tar Heels played some of their best and most intense basketball of the season to forge a double-digit lead in the second half. With two minutes to go and Carolina still up ten, it looked like writers would be describing an epic second half by Harrison Barnes, the 19 first half points from Tyler Zeller, and the generally magnificent overall play of Kendall Marshall.

Instead, Carolina's players and fans got the harshest possible reminder that college basketball is a sport that can break the hearts of not just little boys, but sometimes grown men too.

The Tar Heels did miss two of four free throws in the final minute to open the door, did have a bad turnover coming out of a timeout leading to Seth Curry's crucial three, and did fail to secure a couple of rebounds that might have sealed matters. But you also have to look at the gutsy and unexpected shot by Tyler Thornton to start the comeback, as well as the flukey tap-in to his own basket by Zeller after Carolina had played terrific defense holding a three point lead.

Most of all, you have to give credit to Duke for playing hard to the end in hopes they could still steal this one, and of course Rivers for completing what amounts to basketball larceny.

Most Carolina fans, and likely the players and coaches, will spend the remainder of their Wednesday night in a state of shock. This was a heartbreaker of a kind that comes along in the regular season only once a decade or so. Indeed, it's tempting in the immediate aftermath of the game to think that there's nothing else this team could do this season that would ever erase the hurt of this loss.

History suggests that that conclusion would be a mistake—unless broken Tar Heel hearts translate into a broken Tar Heel spirit.

It could be the case that the players and staff will have to go through a round of team therapy, in the manner of the 2005 team after its painful midseason loss in Cameron, to get this out of the system. Or maybe not much needs to be said, so long as it understood that some basketball lessons have been learned about the importance of every single point and basket and of playing with concentration right until the end.

Roy Williams will take this loss as hard as anyone, but there's every reason to be confident he will figure out how to best handle this team emotionally and get it ready to play Saturday against Virginia.

That game Saturday has long loomed as quite significant, but now it takes on extra importance—it will reveal much about the mentality and durability of this team, and it will set the tone for the second half of the league regular season. This team has prided itself in the past year as being close-knit, and that quality could serve the team well in bouncing back.

Between now and Saturday, rounds of recriminations and endless recounting of the events of the final two minutes will serve little useful purpose, especially if carried out in a spirit of finger-pointing. The aftermath of this game in fact might also be a test of the resilience and character of the Carolina fan base as well. A loud and clear message of support from the fans when the team comes out of the tunnel Saturday afternoon will rarely have been more appreciated by the participants.

In the meantime, those with Carolina allegiances would do well to allow Austin Rivers to have his night—he earned it. There will be other days and nights to come.

Thad is the author of "More Than a Game: Why North Carolina Basketball Means So Much To So Many" (now available to be read for free online here: More Than a Game - ONLINE). A Chapel Hill native, he operated the manual scoreboard formerly located at the end of the UNC bench between the 1982-83 and 1987-88 seasons in Carmichael and the Smith Center. Thad wrote regularly for Inside Carolina and from 1995 to 2005. He's an associate professor of leadership studies at the University of Richmond.

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