Friday, February 17, 2012

Austin Rivers Still Haunts My Nightmares

Okay, I don't actually have nightmares, but I am still bitter about North Carolina's loss to Duke last week. I've probably seen Austin Rivers' shot somewhere between 50 and a gazillion times. On Wednesday, the Miami fans heckled Tyler Zeller with an "Aus-tin Riv-ers" chant when he shot free throws. And it worked, as he went just 1-4. Fans are so clever.

Today, I finally brought myself to read Shane Ryan's first hand recap, and it brought all the emotions back. First, the annoyance that the Blue Devils kept hitting those first half 3's, prompting the Duke fan I was watching with to cheer with exuberance. The 3 point line has been the Tar Heels' weakness all year, which is unfortunate since, you know, that's what Duke's offense revolves around. The beloved Black Falcon, Harrison Barnes, was struggling chasing around Rivers on the perimeter because of a hobbled ankle. (That ankle played a part in Barnes going 0-4 in the first half as he struggled to finish through contact and a couple jumpers rattled out.) Thus, Rivers was going off, and his face seemed even more punchable.
I hope it hurt under that pile.

Oh how I wish Dexter Strickland would have been healthy to guard Rivers, if only for the dilemma it would pose to Callie Rivers, Austin's older sister who is reportedly dating Strickland. Instead, Reggie Bullock switched onto him and did a good job for the most part. Bullock has been a nice addition to the starting lineup since Strickland was lost to an ACL injury because of his outside shooting presence and rebounding; Bullock's not as versatile a player, but he is just as good of a perimeter defender in his own right. With Bullock slowing down Rivers, North Carolina was finally able to go on a run and take a 3 point lead to halftime.

That halftime lead was only attainable thanks to the Tar Heels' dominance on the offensive glass with Zeller and John Henson. Big Z had 19 huge first half points that kept them in the game, so it's unfortunate he's a bit of a scapegoat involving the horrible sequence of events that ended the game. Carolina had the game in hand after a blistering start to the second half kept the lead at a steady 8-12 point margin. Whenever Duke would start to make a run, UNC would respond and extend the lead to double digits again; the Tar Heels seemed like they were going to coast to a nice home victory against their bitter rivals. They didn't. North Carolina couldn't close it out, and Duke took that small window of a chance and blew it wide open.

It started with just over 2 minutes to go and UNC claiming a 82-72 lead when Tyler Thornton hit a big three. Until that point, he was 0-5 shooting, all on 3's, and it seemed like he wanted to make an entry pass before realizing he was left wide open. Seven point game. Then, COMING OUT OF A TIMEOUT, Duke gets a steal on a careless pass by Kendall Marshall, who had played brilliantly until this point. I can't stress that play enough because it was a called play from the huddle, and it led directly to a Seth Curry BOMB of a 3 where he blatantly traveled.

Suddenly it's a four point game, and Carolina badly need a bucket from Barnes. Instead, the hated Ryan Kelly draws a charge on a wild drive by Barnes. (It looked to me on the replay that Thornton, the help defender, might have tripped Barnes on the drive, but Carolina needs a better play than that). Then Kelly misses a three so badly that the long rebound comes back to him, and he nails a short baseline jumper to make it 82-80. On the ensuing Tar Heels possession, Marshall wisely tries to run a play for Zeller in the post, and a foul is called to send Big Z to the line. The nearly 80% free throw shooter only makes one and then tips the ball into his own basket after another badly missed Kelly 3 pointer.

The refs rule the tip a 2 pointer, so it's 83-82 with Zeller going to the line again after an intentional foul. He splits the free throws again, and you know the rest. Rivers brings the ball up court, gets a screen from Mason Plumlee, and Bullock and Zeller make a switch on defense instead of trapping Rivers to try to get the ball out of his hands. Zeller has to make him a driver there because you only lose on a 3, and the clock might run out as he tries to make his move. Instead, Rivers sizes the big man up, feigns a drive, and pulls up for the game winning 3 as time expires. I knew it was going in right away. Zeller gave him too much space because he was afraid of fouling, but you have to have your hand up there.

What I really hated about the way the game ended was that the amazing second half of Barnes got lost in the Rivers hysteria. After getting all his first half points at the free throw line, he came out on fire in the second frame. The adrenaline probably helped him deal with his ankle after a while, and he had it all going for him: the deep range, the spin move through traffic, the post game, the transition game, and the patented pull-up jumper. He showed why he's a contender for the top pick in the draft with just a purely dominant stretch when Carolina extended the lead and seemed in control. However, he was careless with a couple free throws that would have completed 3-point plays, and that was part of what left the window open for Duke. The Blue Devils get the dramatic win, and the spectacular play of Barnes is forgotten.

No matter what, there will now always be a tinge of hatred in my view of Austin Rivers.

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