The freshman took advantage, burying a shot that will live on in the lore of this fierce rivalry.
Rivers hit a 3-pointer at the horn to give the No. 10 Blue Devils an 85-84 win over the fifth-ranked Tar Heels on Wednesday night, snapping the UNC's school-record 31-game home winning streak.
Rivers scored a season-high 29 points and hit six 3s, the last over 7-footer Tyler Zeller with the Blue Devils (20-4, 7-2) trailing by two in the final seconds. The ball swished through the net, sending Rivers running down the court in celebration while the rest of his teammates gave chase before mobbing him in front of a stunned UNC crowd.
Rivers' 3 also sent his father, Boston Celtics coach Doc Rivers, into jubilant celebration from the stands. And it capped a wild rally for the Blue Devils from 10 down in the final 2½ minutes.
"Obviously this is my favorite win I've ever had in my entire life," Rivers said. "And it's because we were down the whole game. The whole game, we were down. They just kept it on us -- 10-point lead, 10-point lead. And then there was 3 minutes left and probably everybody thought we were going to lose, and we just kept fighting. To get a W, it's amazing."
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Harrison Barnes scored 25 points for the Tar Heels (20-4, 7-2), while Zeller finished with 23 points and 11 rebounds. But Zeller had just four points in the second half and missed two free throws in the final minute, including one with 13.9 seconds left that set up Rivers' winner.
It was a finish befitting the rivalry, from Rivers' shot to Barnes' second-half surge to a strange play in which Zeller accidentally batted the ball into the Duke basket on a rebound attempt to bring the Blue Devils within a point with 14.2 seconds left after trailing all second half.
"They're really good and they can knock you out," Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. "And we didn't get knocked out. And as a result, we hung in there and we won the last round. I'm not sure we won the whole fight, but the last round, we did, and we won the game. But we fought the entire time. We fought a really good fight."
North Carolina charged out of halftime to build a 13-point lead and seemed in control. But the Tar Heels never could land the finishing blow to a Duke team that had looked a bit lost in recent weeks, including its own crushing loss to Florida State on a last-second 3-pointer that snapped a 45-game winning streak at Cameron Indoor Stadium on Jan. 21.
Duke was coming off an overtime home loss to Miami over the weekend, but the Blue Devils -- and Rivers, in particular -- played with plenty of confidence all night against the Tar Heels. They shot 44 percent and matched a season high with 14 3-pointers.
And with Florida State's loss at Boston College earlier Wednesday, the Blue Devils, Tar Heels and Seminoles are all tied again atop the ACC standings.
"We believe in our players, we believe in our coaching staff and they believe in us," said Ryan Kelly, who had 15 points for Duke. "Not everything went perfectly, but when it came down to it, we made the biggest play."
From the start, the Blue Devils seemed determined to rely on the 3-point shot to offset the Tar Heels' dominance inside. They hit plenty early and led by eight in the first half, then cooled off as the Tar Heels charged out of halftime.
In the end, however, the Blue Devils' shooters warmed up just in time to stop North Carolina's long home winning streak.
"It really hurts just because of how we played the whole game," said UNC's John Henson, who had 12 points and 17 rebounds. "For us in the last three minutes just to give it up like that is really depressing."
Rivers finished with a Duke freshman scoring record against UNC. Seth Curry added 15 points, including a 3 that made it 82-78 with 1:48 left.
Then Kelly followed with a jumper off his own missed 3 that closed the gap to 82-80. Then, after Zeller hit a free throw, Kelly launched a long shot that appeared to be a 3 over Henson. As the ball was falling short of the rim, Zeller tried for the rebound but accidentally deflected the ball up and into the basket to cut the deficit to 83-82.
Zeller got caught on a switch defending Rivers on the final possession and said he should've played him closer.
"I knew he was going to shoot a 3," Barnes said. "I thought everyone in the gym knew. Z did a good job of contesting, but he made the shot."
Then again, North Carolina probably never should've let it come to that.
After trailing most of the first half, the Tar Heels ran off a 14-4 run to start the second half. Barnes didn't have a field goal in the first half while playing on his sore left ankle, but he finally got going with a pair of baskets followed by a 3-pointer off a crosscourt pass from Kendall Marshall for a 57-44 lead with 15:08 left.
North Carolina maintained at least a seven-point lead until those final minutes, with Barnes' last jumper giving the Tar Heels an 82-72 lead with 2:38 left.
North Carolina shot 59 percent in the second half, but went just 8 for 15 from the foul line after halftime to let this one slip painfully away.
"This one hurts," UNC coach Roy Williams said. "The kids really played and competed and did some very good things."