The variables are too ridiculous. The probabilities too unearthly. The coincidences, well maybe there can't be any when it comes to these two.
There have been millions of organized basketball games played in the past 100-plus years. Can't be possible that any of them mimicked the sequence of events that led to Duke 98, North Carolina 96.
Roy Williams probably feels like he's living in a nightmare he can't escape. UNC is copyrighting new ways to lose every week. Its Saturday evening collapse is the malpractice masterpiece for this miserable 2019-20 Heels season.
Since 2012, there have been seven UNC-Duke games decided by four points or fewer. None more outlandish than this one. How No. 7 Duke (20-3) beat Carolina just became the biggest story of the weekend in college basketball. It didn't seem likely that Bob Knight returning to Indiana after nearly 20 years could be overshadowed, but the best rivalry in college sports did it. Somehow, Duke and UNC did it again.
Less than a week after the San Francisco 49ers blew the Super Bowl, the term "win probability" is about to make another quick comeback into the sports consciousness. Because North Carolina was cruising around 99% on multiple occasions. In regulation and overtime.
But the odds stand no chance -- maybe none of us do -- in this delirious season. It's Duke 98, North Carolina 96. Eight years to the day after UNC lost its most recent home stunner to Duke -- Austin Rivers at the buzzer via a 3 -- Duke found a way to win an even more bizarre game.
We'll call it the Dean Dome double buzzer-beater.
Tre Jones' intentional miss at the end of regulation instantly goes down as one of the most impressive intentional bricks in college basketball history. The backspin on the ball, the fact Jones (game-high 28 points) got his own board, the wherewithal for the seldom-rattled Jones (who is not a good mid-range or long-range shooter) to calmly get the shot off amid the scramble.. First to wrap regulation, then end it in overtime. Both Blue Devil shots at the horn coming after missed foul shots. Both unlikely. Both in a scrabble.
This is trickery masking itself as clutch play.
And the slicing irony of this. UNC fouled up three with under five seconds to play. It did so because there is increasing belief that fouling up three points with fewer than five or six or seven seconds to go is the safer way to win. (It is, in fact, fallible. Saturday night was not the only proof.) It did so because not fouling up three allowed Clemson to tie the game at UNC earlier this season, then proceeded to win in overtime, giving the Tigers their first victory at UNC in school history.
There can't be a way to truly measure how unlikely UNC opting out of fouling vs. Clemson and losing but then opting in on fouling vs. Duke and losing is, was or ever will be.
In overtime it was Jones who -- after a double-botched call by the officials on UNC's inbounds play -- found himself on the line again, 96-all, only this time his airball setup an accidental alley-oop to Wendell Moore (who tipped free the offensive rebound to begin with; what a play!) that killed Carolina. Duke led for fewer than two minutes the entire game.
Duke 98, North Carolina 96.
Chapel Hill chicanery.
UNC is 10-13, and somehow just took a loss more frustrating, deflating, painful and infuriating than the first home loss in program history to just-OK Clemson; or the home loss to Wofford; or the 25-point home loss to Ohio State; or the home loss to lowly Georgia Tech; or the home loss to mediocre Boston College; or the double-overtime loss to slumping Virginia Tech. And that's just this season. Sure, UNC won the national title in 2017, and that was sweet, but it came after the only buzzer-beating 3-pointer in NCAA title-game history, courtesy of Kris Jenkins.
And remember when Miami beat UNC? Talk about a pendulum swing. The Tar Heels feel like the most frequent victims of last-second shots. The punches keep coming and must feel like cold steel against the skin.
UNC should have won in regulation. It led 77-64 with four minutes remaining. And that was the score of the game when Duke's best player this season, Vernon Carey Jr., fouled out. One could write a novella on the final four minutes of regulation alone, then a second volume just for overtime. There were turnovers, fouls, non-fouls and unlikely characters that could demand another 17 monologues. Duke took its largest lead of the game in overtime (five points) and tossed it away in less than a minute.
An 11-1 UNC run in the bonus session gave Carolina a 96-91 lead with 20 seconds to go. How can you lose this game? Duke didn't have Carey at that point and it didn't have fellow freshman starter/frequent flyer Cassius Stanley for the final 2:32 of overtime.
But it was 96-91 and the Tar Heels never scored again. Duke got seven.
Jones' 18 points in the final minute of regulation-plus-overtime immediately logs in the Duke storybook as one of the great individual takeovers in Duke history.
Duke 98, North Carolina 96.
For Duke to maintain its want-to and stay in it without Carey down the stretch of regulation was sort of shocking. To do it again without Carey and Stanley was voodoo. This in the face of Cole Anthony getting up and playing pretty well (24 points, 11 rebounds) for the Tar Heels. The supporting cast was good most of the night, too. This looked like a Carolina crew capable of making the NCAA Tournament. For a night, at least. Then it all evaporated, reincarnated and disappeared for good. It's the big and small stuff that makes an epic. UNC missed 17 of its 38 foul shots. That's what happens when you rank 325th in foul shooting because you only make 64.8% of your free throws. It's a terrible 3-point shooting team (29.5%) and being terrible again (3 for 12).
No one can deny that the officiating was spotty. Too many stoppages, too much clog killing the flow of an otherwise captivating contest. The call that gave Duke the ball and helped enable the ending is hard to justify. Ted Valentine, an official with a colorful past and familiarity to the average college basketball fan, missed the call on in inbounds late in overtime. The ball wasn't even for sure out on North Carolina, and besides, UNC's Andrew Platek was fouled in the rush to gain possession.
But the flaws make this more of a classic. An imperfect one. Funny thing is, this wasn't even a worthwhile matchup heading in, series history be damned. Carolina making a beeline for its worst season since the dreaded 2001-02 campaign. Duke slumping as of late. And those awful uniforms. I'm still annoyed that the memory of this game and the images therein will have to include those teams wearing those threads. Gack. Burn them now. All of them.
It wasn't the best game of the year -- no way. But in terms of drama and memorability? It's as riveting and maddening as we've seen this season. College hoops didn't need something like this, but it feels a lot better to have received it. Just a welcomed bonus. An unexpected splash of two freaky finishes that reminded us that this is the best rivalry in college sports and that sports provides elements of the absurd that we get nowhere else.
UNC is irrelevant this season, but that didn't matter on Saturday night. For more than two hours it looked like Duke was going to take another bad loss. UNC was going to get at least one win this season to make all the agony worth it.
Duke continues its pace to another great NCAA Tournament seed, flaws and all, a win like this maybe amounting to karmic redemption for losing at home to Stephen F. Austin earlier in the season. All UNC gets is the haunt. What was, what is and what could never be.