Final thrilling play a perfect symbol for this wild and wacky season

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. -- Timeout in a tense Lawrence Joel Coliseum, 2.6 seconds on the clock. Time to draw up the play that perfectly symbolizes this wonderfully silly season in college basketball.

Wake Forest had given away every bit of a 13-point lead against a Duke team that was badly beaten but too stubbornly tough to admit it. After trailing for 35 minutes and 41 seconds of continuous action, the Blue Devils had scored with 11 seconds left to tie the game at 68. The crumbling Demon Deacons had a last chance to salvage a game they had dominated, inbounding under Duke's basket.

So here's how it went: A coach who once bombed at Loyola (Md.) devised a brand-new play out of thin air, calling for the potential winning shot against the No. 1 team in the nation to be taken by a guy from Wyoming who is the middle of nine children and the son of a seven-time world kickboxing champion.

"We never ran that play before," said the player in question, James Johnson. "Ever."

Happens all the time, right? You freelance an inbounds play for the Karate Kid from the Mountain Time Zone to win a Tobacco Road thriller against Duke and Mike Krzyzewski? Sure.

Well, it happened this one time. To the giddy relief and disbelief of 14,665 fans.

Forward James Johnson, the Wyoming wunderkind, went to set a screen on the perimeter for go-to guard Jeff Teague. Then, while Gerald Henderson and Nolan Smith and seemingly every Dukie but Danny Ferry hedged out on Teague, Johnson slipped back toward the basket all alone.

Krzyzewski's description of his team's defense on the play: "Horrible."

Inbounder L.D. Williams dropped a deft bounce pass into Johnson's mitts. He went unmolested to the hoop with one thought blaring in his brain: "Geez, I gotta finish."

Johnson finished, laying the ball in the basket for a 70-68 lead as bedlam broke out. After Williams knocked aside a desperation full-court Duke pass, the game was over and the floor of The Joel became a black-and-gold mosh pit.

Just like that, a college basketball regular season stupidly dismissed by some as "boring" or "unimportant" had delivered yet another entertaining plot twist. Just like that, No. 1 was beaten again, opening the path for a fourth different team atop the rankings in the past four weeks. And just like that, this coliseum drew a chalk outline around another highly ranked team.

In the past three games in this gym, teams ranked third (North Carolina), first (Wake Forest) and first (Duke) have been knocked off. Saratoga Race Course is called the Graveyard of Favorites, but it has nothing on The Joel.

And nothing on the wild unpredictability of this season.

Unless (or until) North Carolina regains primacy, the difference between being No. 1 and being in the pack chasing No. 1 is thinner than Amy Winehouse. It's foul trouble on a given night. Or a big basket at just the right time. Or a new inbounds play created in a burst of desperate inspiration during a tense timeout.

"It's not something we have in our playbook," said Wake Forest coach Dino Gaudio. "We were drawing in the sand a little bit."

For Gaudio and the Demon Deacons, the play produced a victory that ends a week of wondering about themselves. Was their stunning home loss to Virginia Tech last Wednesday just a blip, just something that happens in the rugged ACC? Or was it a sign that young interloper Wake wasn't really prepared for a season-long run as a contender for league and national titles?

Now, by the thinnest of margins, the Deacons believe they know the answer. Despite flirting with an epic unraveling late, doubt has been driven out.

"We're a real team," Teague said. "I think guys are going to believe it a little bit."

The proof of Wake's legitimacy begins with the fact that leading scorer Teague was largely shut down, scoring only 11 points and shooting his worst percentage of the season (4-of-14 from the field). That didn't spell defeat, thanks to an ensemble cast of supporting actors.

Junior center David Weaver played a season-high 19 minutes and scored a season-high nine points, playing ahead of touted freshman Tony Woods.

"I think our managers can come in there and play a little bit," Weaver opined. "We're real deep."

Junior guard Ishmael Smith started his first two years at Wake, but after fracturing his foot in September he's been strictly a reserve. Wednesday night might have been his return to prominence, as he racked up seven points and four assists -- one of which was a jaunty, between-the-legs fast-break dime for forward Al-Farouq Aminu to hammer home.

"I try some of the craziest passes in practice, and I hear about it from Coach Gaudio," Smith said with a smile.

It's good to have Aminu on the finishing end of those passes. The star recruit known as "The Chief" had 15 points and 10 rebounds, and was a very long and active impediment to Duke's drives to the basket. His immediate insertion in the starting lineup has helped the Deacons go from no postseason in 2008 to title contender in 2009.

"The Chief has arrived," Johnson said. "That's the difference."

Still, the difference between Wake and Duke is amazingly small. For the Blue Devils to shoot 33 percent from the field and 18 percent from 3-point range on the road against a quality opponent and almost win says something.

Namely, it says Duke is tougher than a $2 steak. Time and again, this felt like a Wake Forest rout in the making, but the Devils refused to let it happen.

"A fierce determination in that group of kids," Krzyzewski said of his players. "That was neat to see. It's just not going to be your night, then through effort and determination you almost make it your night.

"I like my team. It was good to see them do it in that type of setting -- on the road, and really on the verge of getting kicked out of here. That was a good thing."

This game was a good thing for both sides, and for anyone who doesn't believe college basketball in January is worth watching.

These two will meet again Feb. 22 in Durham -- and given the way this season has gone, it could come down to a thrilling ad-lib ending once again.

Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.