Duke needs Austin Rivers to be ‘the man’

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Before we get into the meat of this post, before we spend anytime analyzing what happened in Duke’s 85-84 win over UNC in the Dean Dome or how the Blue Devils were able to erase a 10-point deficit in the final two minutes, let’s all sit back and admire how the game ended:

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3X1ewxVwhug%5D

That is what college basketball is all about.

Austin Rivers, a cocky freshman playing in his first installment of the best rivalry our sport has to offer, buried a buzzer-beating 3-pointer to cap a miraculous comeback on the road on national television.

It doesn’t get any better than that.

“This is the best feeling I’ve ever had on the basketball court,” Rivers said after the game. “This is the best feeling I’ve ever had.”

source: Getty Images

And for Duke, it doesn’t get any better than Rivers at this point in the season. He is, quite clearly, the only player on the Blue Devils’ roster that is capable of creating for himself. When he gets it going like he did tonight — scoring a career-high 29 points on 9-16 shooting from the floor, including 6-10 from three — he’s as dangerous as anyone in the country with the ball in his hands.

Duke would be best served to run their offense through Rivers from here on out. Two months ago, that would have been a risky proposition. Rivers was, more or less, still playing AAU ball. Forced drives, ill-advised threes, turnovers. He was scoring at a decent rate, but the inefficient manner in which he was getting those points was doing more harm than good for the Blue Devils. Not anymore more. Not only are those shots going down at a higher rate, but he’s learning how to better play with teammates, as opposed to starring in the Austin Rivers Show.

There are still a handful of times every game where he makes a head-scratching decision, but eliminating his aggressiveness and his freedom offensively would only hinder him; the reason that he has taken so many tough shots is that he believes he can make those tough shots. You don’t want to take away that confidence as much as you want to teach him how to channel it.

Perhaps the most important thing to note about this game is that the play that is going to be dominating the highlight shows Thursday morning — the game-winner — was far from the only important shot that he made. Rivers started out the game on fire, scoring 10 of the first 12 Duke points to spark an early surge. Then in the second half, when the Tar Heels made their run to take control of the game and push their lead to as much as 13 points, Rivers hit two big threes to keep Duke within reach.

But there was more to Duke’s comeback than an impressive performance from an NBA coach’s son.

As good as Rivers was, the key to Duke’s push down the stretch was that the Devils were finally able to turn this into a half-court game. It took 38 minutes to do so, but they finally got a couple of stops and slowed down UNC’s transition attack. Of course, it helped that they were able to knock down jumpers on their final five possessions, but they were afforded the opportunity to make those jumpers count because they corralled control of the tempo.

Much of that credit should be given to Mason Plumlee, who really played well in the second half. He finished with eight points and 14 rebounds on the game, but he helped hold Tyler Zeller — who had 23 points and 11 boards on the night — to just four points and three boards in the second half.

As telling as this comeback was for the Blue Devils, the inability of UNC to put Duke away when they had them on the ropes was just as important. Every time it looked like the Heels were primed to putting a finishing move on the Blue Devils, UNC would turn the ball over or commit a silly foul (Seth Curry’s four-point play?) or simply miss a shot you wouldn’t expect UNC to miss.

With the win, Duke pulls into a three-way tie with the Heels for first place in the ACC thanks to Florida State’s inexplainable loss at Boston College. In a conference that has made little sense this season, its only fitting that the standing got even more jumbled thanks to the unlikeliest of outcomes on Wednesday night.

But analyzing the standings — hell, analyzing why Wednesday happened the way it happened — is a disservice.

This was just another improbable outcome in the storied rivalry between two of college basketball’s preeminent basketball programs. Instead of worrying about explanations and the ins-and-outs of Duke’s comeback, we all need to kick back and savor this moment.

Because this is as good as it gets.

Kentucky’s Tionna Herron recovering from open-heart surgery

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LEXINGTON, Ky. — Kentucky coach Kyra Elzy says freshman Tionna Herron is recovering from open-heart surgery to correct a structural abnormality.

The 6-foot-4 post player learned of her condition after arriving at school in June and received other opinions before surgery was recommended. Senior trainer Courtney Jones said in a release that Herron underwent surgery Aug. 24 at Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston and is recovering at home in DeSoto, Texas.

Elzy said Herron “is the definition of a warrior” and all are grateful to be on the other side of the player’s surgery. Herron is expected back on campus early next month and will continue rehabilitation until she’s cleared to return to normal activity.

“Her will and determination to eventually return to the court is inspiring, and it’s that `game-on’ attitude that is what makes her such a perfect fit in our program,” Elzy said in a release. “We are so thrilled for Tionna’s return to our locker room; it’s not the same without our full team together.”

Herron committed to Kentucky during last fall’s early signing period, rated as a four-star prospect and a top-70 player in last year’s class. Kentucky won last year’s Southeastern Conference Tournament and reached the NCAA Tournament’s first round.

Emoni Bates charged with 2 felonies

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SUPERIOR TOWNSHIP, Mich — Emoni Bates, a former basketball prodigy who transferred to Eastern Michigan from Memphis, was charged with two felonies after police found a gun in a car during a traffic stop.

The 18-year-old Bates failed to stop at an intersection Sunday night and a search turned up the weapon, said Derrick Jackson, a spokesman for the Washtenaw County sheriff’s office.

Defense attorney Steve Haney told The Associated Press that the vehicle and the gun didn’t belong to Bates.

“I hope people can reserve judgment and understand there’s a presumption of innocence,” Haney said. “This was not his vehicle. This was not his gun. … We’re still gathering facts, too.”

Bates was charged with carrying a concealed weapon and altering identification marks on a firearm. He was released after his lawyer entered a not guilty plea. Bates’ next court hearing is Oct. 6.

“This is his first brush with the law,” Haney said in court. “He poses no threat or risk to society.”

Less than a month ago, the 6-foot-9 Bates transferred to Eastern Michigan to play for his hometown Eagles. Bates averaged nearly 10 points a game last season as a freshman at Memphis, where he enrolled after reclassifying to skip a year of high school and join the class of 2021.

“We are aware of a situation involving one of our student athletes,” EMU spokesman Greg Steiner said. “We are working to gather more details and will have further comment when more information is available.”

Bates was the first sophomore to win the Gatorade national player of the year award in high school basketball in 2020, beating out Cade Cunningham and Evan Mobley. Detroit drafted Cunningham No. 1 overall last year, two spots before Cleveland took Mobley in the 2021 NBA draft.

Bates committed to playing for Tom Izzo at Michigan State two years ago, later de-committed and signed with Memphis. Bates played in 18 games for the Tigers, who finished 22-11 under Penny Hardaway. Bates missed much of the season with a back injury before appearing in Memphis’ two NCAA Tournament games.

In 2019, as a high school freshman, the slender and skilled guard led Ypsilanti Lincoln to a state title and was named Michigan’s Division 1 Player of the Year by The Associated Press. His sophomore season was cut short by the pandemic and he attended Ypsi Prep Academy as a junior, his final year of high school.

UConn to pay Kevin Ollie another $3.9 million over firing

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STORRS, Conn. — UConn announced Thursday it has agreed to pay former men’s basketball coach Kevin Ollie another $3.9 million to settle discrimination claims surrounding his 2018 firing.

The money is in addition to the more than $11.1 million in back salary Ollie has already been paid after an arbitrator ruled in January that he was improperly fired under the school’s agreement with its professor’s union.

“I am grateful that we were able to reach agreement,” Ollie said in a statement Thursday. “My time at UConn as a student-athlete and coach is something I will always cherish. I am pleased that this matter is now fully and finally resolved.”

Ollie, a former UConn point guard who guided the Huskies to a 127-79 record and the 2014 national championship in six seasons as head coach, was let go after two losing seasons. UConn also stopped paying him under his contract, citing numerous NCAA violations in terminating the deal.

In 2019, the NCAA placed UConn on probation for two years and Ollie was sanctioned individually for violations, which the NCAA found occurred between 2013 and 2018. Ollie’s attorneys, Jacques Parenteau and William Madsen, accused UConn of making false claims to the NCAA for the purpose of firing Ollie “with cause.”

The school had argued that Ollie’s transgressions were serious and that his individual contract superseded those union protections.

Ollie’s lawyers had argued that white coaches, including Hall-of-Famers Jim Calhoun and women’s coach Geno Auriemma, had also committed NCAA violations, without being fired, and indicated they were planning to file a federal civil rights lawsuit.

The school and Ollie said in a joint statement Thursday they were settling “to avoid further costly and protracted litigation.”

Both sides declined to comment further.

Ollie, who faced three years of restrictions from the NCAA on becoming a college basketball coach again, is currently coaching for Overtime Elite, a league that prepares top prospects who are not attending college for the pros.

Dream’s McDonald returning to Arizona to coach under Barnes

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TUCSON, Ariz. — Atlanta Dream guard Aari McDonald is returning to Arizona to work under coach Adia Barnes.

The school announced that McDonald will serve as director of recruiting operations while continuing to fulfill her WNBA commitments. She will oversee all recruiting logistics, assist with on-campus visits, manage recruit information and social media content at Arizona.

McDonald was one of the best players in Arizona history after transferring from Washington as a sophomore. She was an All-American and the Pac-12 player of the year in 2020-21, leading the Wildcats to the national championship game, which they lost to Stanford.

McDonald broke Barnes’ single-season scoring record and had the highest career scoring average in school history before being selected by the Dream with the third overall pick of the 2021 WNBA draft.

South Carolina, Staley cancel BYU games over racial incident

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COLUMBIA, S.C. – South Carolina and women’s basketball coach Dawn Staley have canceled a home-and-home series with BYU over a recent racial incident where a Cougars fan yelled slurs at a Duke volleyball player.

The Gamecocks were scheduled to start the season at home against BYU on Nov. 7, then play at the Utah campus during the 2023-24 season.

But Staley cited BYU’s home volleyball match last month as reason for calling off the series.

“As a head coach, my job is to do what’s best for my players and staff,” Staley said in a statement released by South Carolina on Friday. “The incident at BYU has led me to reevaluate our home-and-home, and I don’t feel that this is the right time for us to engage in this series.”

Duke sophomore Rachel Richardson, a Black member of the school’s volleyball team, said she heard racial slurs from the stands during the match.

BYU apologized for the incident and Richardson said the school’s volleyball players reached out to her in support.

South Carolina said it was searching for another home opponent to start the season.

Gamecocks athletic director Ray Tanner spoke with Staley about the series and supported the decision to call off the games.