With 5 full seconds left, when Rivers and Curry ran that screen and Zeller switched onto Rivers, hand to God, three words were already pinballing around the walls of my brain: “worst loss ever.”
Watching the actual shot go in – watching Zeller stand 6 feet back for it, hands at his side – felt like I was already watching the 10,000th of the numberless replays that will be shown of Rivers' shot from now right up until the heat death of the universe.
Oh, this wasn’t a replay yet, at 11:42 in Chapel Hill? Rivers shot was still, actually, in the air? On paper, Duke was still losing and Carolina still winning? Well, just wait. Its going in.
And… there. It went in.
Of course it went in. When you need 12 straight coin flips to go your way, you are nervous. When you hit 11 of them, you aren’t nervous. You know number 12 is coming up heads.
This was a game that Duke was going to win at the hands of Austin Rivers and that UNC was going to lose at the hands of Tyler Zeller, and not you or anybody else on or off the floor could do anything about it.
You knew Tyler Zeller was going to give Rivers those three vital points because Zeller spent the previous 90 seconds giving Duke 4 equally vital points, 2 of them literally. If you didn’t understand the body language Destiny was throwing Duke’s way after Zeller tipped in what would have been a game-ending airball - an airball! - then buddy, you was blind.
“You- you can pay for the drinks,” that play said. “And you- you can meet me at the door.”
As the final seconds unfolded like a 500th rewinding of a flickering, fading VHS-tape - shouldn't Rivers shorts have been 3 sizes tighter? - I didn’t actually know how to quantify a “worst loss ever” but I knew this was about to be it.
Largest lead lost? Biggest comeback in final 2 minutes? Scoring-differential to end a game? Time left on clock when winning points scored? Decible drop in crowd?
Surely that game broke whatever the previous record was in any of those categories, and if it didn’t, it doesn't matter: in a relatively unremarkable game, historically speaking, a good team (Duke) was getting beat by a slightly but tangibly better team (Carolina). And then 4 or 5 unlikely things happened and then a couple of impossible things happened and when the moment came for the unthinkable to happen – well, it felt like it already had.
On the 5th Anniversary of the End of Everything, that was, truly, the Worst Loss Ever - which, in a way, is its own silver lining.
Top 15 Carolina Silver Linings/Desperate Excuse
1. UNC players 86, Duke players 83. Rivers’ cash-money moment never happens without the flukiest moment in the history of the series, Tyler Zeller leaping to grab a Duke airball, uncontested, and impossibly managing to tip the shot in. I mean... come on... The Rivers shot was a classic, the whole game was an epic fight, it was 40 minutes of tremendous nerves and skill, what a game.... but… COME ON!!!!
2. It's impossible to really like Roy Williams, right? It’s delightful when he wins because, hey, your team won! But when they lose, it’s almost always because he got outcoached, and that's when you see the preening, tantrum-thrower beneath the surface. Not that K is any better, but, remember these are deserate silver linings.
3. This team is soft. Have been since they got pushed around for the first 15 minutes on that boat. If this hardens them up, it was worth it. If it doesn’t, they weren’t going to win anything anyway.
4. In the end, it was the 3s. Nothing else – not heart, not guts, not fate, not nerves, not defense, not the tip-in. Duke did the most Duke-thing in all the world, the thing Duke always does, the thing that everyone hates Duke for: they rained 3s and hoped they went in. Ten – 10! – from one guy. Six went in. Thirty-friggin’-six(!) overall, 14(!!) of which went in. Two successful 3s is worth three normal possessions, so Duke gave itself the equivalent of 7 more possesions than UNC. They should have won by 14. They won by one.
5. Curry traveled. Badly (I know nobody calls traveling anymore. But this is our list; we’re loading up.)
6. The Plumlees weren’t even tangentially involved. Rivers is just the best player in America who, for now, happens to play for Duke. But the most Duke of Duke’s current players had the following night: one didn’t even play, and the two who did had, combined, 11 points and 17 rebounds – same boards and a point less than Carolina’s John Henson by himself. In fact, the only thing a Plumlee did worth a crap was awkwardly inbound the ball to Rivers, who never in a zillion years was going to pass it back to him or his sorry brothers. OK, fine he set the screen that switched Barnes off of Rivers to Z's containment-policy defense. But so what. Rivers was going to take - and make - that shot over HB, too. No, if Rivers and Seth Curry had somehow collided at midcourt prior to the shot and broken each other’s hips, and Rivers had needed to desperately roll the ball to somebody he could trust before collapsing in career-ending agony, he would have picked, well, Zeller before a Plumlee.
7. And the Plumlees’ night highights a truth that dare not speak its name this morning: other than Rivers, Carolina has better players. That’s not the same as having the ‘better team’ and it’s not even the same time zone as being ‘better,’ but each of Carolina’s players, ex-Rivers, was better than their Duke counterpart. Carolina was winning – cruising, even, despite taking Duke’s game-opening haymakers – until the Zeller-Rivers Event, and among the things that means is…
8. …Carolina might still might (MIGHT) be able to win something worth winning, such as: the rematch at Duke, the national title… I guess that’s the whole list; and…
9. …Duke ain’t winning it all this year. 3-ball teams eventually lose, and when they do its ugly. That was their Tebow-v-Pittsburgh, and to the victor goes the spoils. But that team ain’t winning the Super Bowl.
10. Tyler Zeller has been given the greatest gift that any wandering soul in this empty universe can ever receive: he just had the Worst Day of His Life. It’s literally all gravy from here, young man. When the curtain finally falls, make sure you aren’t thinking about last night.
11. It’ll never happen again, because…
12. ...the ‘magic’ of this game will be just enough for Duke fans to talk themselves into a “Rivers will come back next year because that UNC game was SO GREAT!” scenario…
13. …which will make it hurt that much more when he leaves. Cuz he’s leaving.
14. When he’s gone, the farther the moment recedes in history and climbs in Duke lore, the more it will silently tarnish the “Coach K-thing.” The greatest moment of the late-K era will be forever linked to – in fact, defined by - his second consecutive one-and-done recruit. Duke likes being “about things” and now they are about riding the tails of one-year mercenaries. Weclome to the legend of Coach K-entucky.
15. Let us rise up and be grateful. You were witness to Awesome. Be grateful.