But with just more than a minute to go in the game, a jumper from Duke forward Ryan Kelly pulled the Blue Devils within two.
UNC forward Tyler Zeller made two of four free throws in the moments to follow, but with less than 14 seconds to go, Duke had the chance for one final shot.
As the seconds ticked off, Duke forward Mason Plumlee set a screen, and Tyler Zeller took over for Reggie Bullock in guarding Rivers.
UNC took the bait. And in the end, it came back to bite them.
“When you got a switch off and have Z guarding him, that’s a tough matchup for Z,” Marshall said. “I think he was more afraid of getting beat off the dribble.”
Zeller, who led the Tar Heels with 19 points and eight rebounds in the first half, was quieter in the second, seemingly trading places with UNC forward Harrison Barnes.
Barnes, whose ankle had been bothering him all night, scored just six points in the first half – all from the free throw line.
With his most dynamic scorer relatively invisible in the first half, UNC coach Roy Williams knew something had to change in the second.
“The coaches told me if I didn’t want to play I’d have to sit on the bench,” Barnes said. “They gave me that ultimatum, and I tried to play harder.”
Immediately after break, Barnes took advantage of his size to get to the basket and scored 11 of UNC’s first 16 points in the second half.
Barnes hit the Tar Heels’ first 3-pointer of the night with 15:08 to go, and followed it with back-to-back jumpers in a 26-second span to give the Tar Heels an 11-point lead.
But in the end, it was all for naught.
After sinking the shot as the buzzer sounded, the deafening silence of the Smith Center interrupted, Rivers then was dog piled on the corner of the court by his teammates.
Without even taking the time to soak in the scene, the Tar Heels ran through the tunnel to the locker room, their faces overcome by a blank stare.
Immediately after the game, the typically positive Barnes hadn’t quite figured out just what to make of the whole situation.
“You go out there, you don’t play well in the first half, you play well in the second half, and then you blow a 10-point lead and lose on a last-second shot,” Barnes said.
“What can be said about a game lost like that?”
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