In a game that can only be described as an instant classic the No. 4 Duke Blue Devils held off the third-ranked Tar Heels 74-73 at the buzzer Friday night in Charlotte—knocking UNC out in the ACC Tournament Semifinals.
With many Duke fans proclaiming that the Tar Heels’ first two victories in the season series should come with an asterisk due to the absence of ACC Player of the Year Zion Williamson, it was Williamson himself who returned and ultimately provided the difference in this one.
The super-freshman led Duke (28-5, 16-4 ACC) with 31 points and 11 rebounds and scored what turned into the game-winning basket when he tipped in his own miss with just 31 seconds remaining.
Following a pair of missed free throws by teammate RJ Barrett not long after, the Tar Heels (27-6, 17-3 ACC) had an opportunity to make a game-winning shot of their own.
Freshman point guard Coby White shot an off-balance three-pointer that was nearly tipped back in by Nassir Little, but Duke got just a piece of that follow-up shot in order to avoid losing to UNC three times in the same season since Phil Ford was the point guard for head coach Dean Smith back in 1976.
This after head coach Roy Williams and company led by as many as 13 points in the first half and had every opportunity to take control of the game, but converted on just four of their 27 attempts from three-point range and struggled to create offense in the half court down the stretch.
Still, though, the story after the game revolved around Williamson—the man who had the biggest impact in his first, and only, appearance in the rivalry.
“The guy that’s been hurt came back and put on his Superman jersey again, and was incredible” Williams told reporters afterwards about Williamson. “Such a blend of strength and power and quickness that we couldn’t stop him from getting the basketball inside and going to the basket.”
With the general sentiment surrounding this game focused on the fact that the winner would put itself in prime position for a No. 1 seed in the upcoming NCAA Tournament, the atmosphere in the building—and the game itself—gave the impression that it was a pair of No. 1 seeds going blow for blow in the Final Four.
UNC senior forward Cameron Johnson scored 16 of his team-high 23 points in the first half when the Tar Heels opened the game strong.
Duke slowed him down the rest of the way, as UNC desperately searched for any kind of offense that didn’t come in transition or from offensive rebounds.
The Tar Heels also received 14 points and 13 rebounds from Luke Maye, while getting 11 points from White.
The primary defender on Williamson for much of the night was sophomore forward Garrison Brooks, who did an admirable job but fouled out with three minutes left—leaving UNC to run a smaller lineup in the final minutes.
The idea that Brooks may have been able to keep Williamson from getting the rebound on the game’s final made shot could certainly circulate, but make no mistake.
Duke won this game, and now UNC can only turn its attention the big tournament that lies ahead.
“It’s hard right now because our kids really fought like crazy,” Williams said. “But they won. And that’s the bottom line today.”
The Tar Heels will now anxiously await their NCAA Tournament destination, which will be announced late Sunday afternoon.
- UNC shot 2-for-20 from three-point range against Duke in the first meeting between the two teams back on Feb. 20, which was the worst it has shot all season from distance. Friday’s performance (4-for-27) represented the Tar Heels’ third-worst effort from long range this season.
- Johnson, Maye and White were the only Tar Heels to score in double figures, but Nassir Little and Kenny Williams each added nine points apiece.
- The Tar Heels shot just 39.7 percent from the floor.
- Duke now has a 51-50 advantage in the last 101 meetings between the two storied rivals.
Cover photo via Todd Melet