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DURHAM â€” Austin Rivers punctuated his first North Carolina-Duke game with one of the biggest shots in the rivalry's history.
For an encore, the freshman wants to bring his fourth-ranked Blue Devils another ACC regular-season title.
The No. 1 seed in the conference tournament â€” and maybe one in the NCAA tournament, too â€” once again is on the line Saturday night when Duke (26-4, 13-2) faces the sixth-ranked Tar Heels (26-4, 13-2) in a matchup of Atlantic Coast Conference co-leaders.
"They're going to be ready to play because of what happened last time," said Rivers, whose buzzer-beater won the first meeting. "But so are we."
It's the 12th time since Mike Krzyzewski came to Duke in 1980 that they will meet with some type of ACC championship on the line â€” either the regular-season title or in the tournament final. The Blue Devils are 6-5 in those situations, but only one of those wins gave Duke a regular-season title.
"At that (first) game, they were not going to give a trophy, and we were still going to play again the next day and the sun was still going to come up," North Carolina coach Roy Williams said Friday. "It was just one game. It's a little more important this time, because somebody is going to get a trophy."
Williams says the league's regular-season winner deserves to be called the ACC champion because it measures two months of play â€” not one weekend. Last year, that honor went to North Carolina after it beat Duke 81-67 in the finale in Chapel Hill.
Eight days later, the Blue Devils captured the tournament crown with a 75-58 rout of the Tar Heels in Greensboro.
Few thought the Blue Devils would play themselves into another winner-take-all showdown after they lost at home to Florida State and Miami, and played poorly â€” by their standards, anyway â€” in a midseason win against St. John's.
"I think we've gotten better, and they've had a good will to win throughout. It's an unusual team, because I still think we're evolving as a team," Krzyzewski said. "Somehow, our team has grown as a result of being in those situations."
And one shot changed everything.
With time ticking away in the first matchup and Duke trailing by two, Rivers launched a high-arcing 3-pointer over Tyler Zeller's outstretched 7-foot frame. The buzzer sounded an instant before it swished through, giving the Blue Devils an 85-84 win and leaving a Smith Center crowd in stunned, silent disbelief.
Williams playfully said when replays of that shot are shown on television, he turns it off because he "saw it once, and that was too much." Zeller, who also missed two free throws in the final minute, says he can't afford to dwell on the defeat and his role in it.
"I took it tough for a couple days, but now it's something that's kind of in my rear-view mirror," Zeller said.
It was immediately branded as one of the most significant moments in the rivalry that spans 233 meetings over more than 90 years. Not only did it cap a furious rally from 10 points down with 2Â½ minutes to play, it put their season back on track.
"People talk about THE shot. I just look at it as a shot," Rivers said. "It does give you confidence, and I think after that, I went back to the kind of swagger or confidence I usually have. And since then, that's what I've been playing with."
It seems to have rubbed off on his teammates. Duke hasn't lost since, starting a seven-game winning streak that kept them atop the league standings.
The Blue Devils have had a few hiccups along the way. They trailed N.C. State by 20 before rallying to win. Most recently, they blew much of a 23-point lead in an eight-point victory at Wake Forest.
But the way the players see it, the emphasis should be on how they managed to win those games, not what they did to nearly lose them.
"People this year have tended to point out our flaws. . Like every other team, we have flaws," forward Ryan Kelly said. "But we've taken those flaws and said, 'we're going to win anyways.' That's something that Duke teams in the past have done that, too, and it shows certainly our level of maturity in that we've looked past those things and found ways to win regardless."
With all the attention paid to Duke and its run, perhaps one thing has been overlooked: the Tar Heels haven't lost since then, either.
The preseason ACC favorites have kept pace by winning six in a row, with all but one of those decided by at least nine points. Now, the schools will play their third winner-take-all finale in five years, with the previous two going to North Carolina.
"If we're not going to be fired up Saturday, my gosh, we need to have our heart and head both examined," Williams said.View more articles in: