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Duke gets a welcomed third shot at UNC. This time, more than a rivalry is on the line

The ACC’s top player back in its lineup, No 5 Duke looked like a team that should be rated a few notches higher on Thursday night.

Well, for the first 16 minutes of play that is.

On a night Zion Williamson returned and didn’t miss any shots except those from the free throw line with no one guarding him, the Blue Devils looked like a team overjoyed to have him early.

“We came out with a lot of energy, a lot of fire behind us, knowing we had Zion back,” Duke freshman guard Tre Jones said.

That energy pushed Duke to a 17-point first half lead before the freshmen-loaded lineup grew complacent.

Even though playing without leading scorer Tyus Battle (bruised back), Syracuse rallied all the way back to tie the game at 46 before the Blue Devils re-engaged to post an 84-72 ACC tournament quarterfinal win over the Orange at Spectrum Center.

Williamson’s 29 points and 14 rebounds in his first game back since spraining his knee on Feb. 20 against North Carolina are the main reason Duke made it to Friday’s ACC semifinals.

Red-hot UNC (27-5) awaits the Blue Devils (27-5) in a Friday night showdown with a berth in the ACC title game on the line.

The way Duke played early and late is good enough to beat anyone in the country. The way the Blue Devils appeared to become bored when they had the Orange down by so much, so fast in the first half needs to be squashed, though.

Syracuse outscored Duke by 11 points over the final 3:06 until halftime, turning a would-be rout into a six-point game.

“We let up a little bit, thinking it was going to be easy” Jones said. “They were able to fight back into it like any team would in the ACC.”

UNC isn’t just any ACC team and Friday night’s game certainly won’t be easy for Duke.

The Blue Devils were a different team in the regular season against the Tar Heels since Williamson, voted ACC player of the year, played only 36 seconds total over the two games.

All one needed to see were his four dunks and a 3-pointer while scoring 18 points in Duke’s sprint to a 32-15 lead against Syracuse to realize just how much the Blue Devils missed him.

“We have Zion back,” Duke freshman forward RJ Barrett said, “so it was a lot of fun.”

Duke needs to turn fun into 40 minutes of fight in what will be an important game for its NCAA tournament seed and their psyche on Friday night.

Winners of eight games in a row and 15 of their last 16 games, the Tar Heels are playing their best basketball of the season. They whipped Duke by 16 points at Cameron and built a 15-point, second-half lead over the Blue Devils last Saturday before settling for a 79-70 win.

UNC left no doubt who the better team was on both those nights.

But now Duke, armed with Williamson, gets a chance show it can get the better of UNC. The Blue Devils will need to do so if they want to earn one of the four No. 1 seeds the NCAA tournament selection committee is awarding this weekend.

Williamson showed the committee he’s playing like the nation’s best player with his 13-of-13 shooting performance against Syracuse. So a Duke win over UNC with Williamson figures to put the Blue Devils back into serious consideration for that No. 1 seed.

A loss to UNC, though, will leave the Tar Heels firmly on the top line come bracket time. Three wins over Duke, including one with Williamson? No one could deny UNC a top seed in that scenario.

So here we are. Again.

For the third year in a row, Duke and UNC meet in the ACC semifinals. In an odd twist, the loser of this game the last two years has gone further in the NCAA tournament.

In 2017, Duke won on the way to winning the ACC championship. Eight days later, a second-round loss to South Carolina ended Duke’s season. UNC won the national championship.

In 2018, UNC prevailed over Duke to reach the ACC final. While the Tar Heels were ousted in the second round of the NCAA tournament, Duke reached the elite eight round.

During this regular season, the Blue Devils walked off the court dazed following their two meetings with UNC.

This is their chance to get it right. Having Williamson is a good start. Bringing the fight to the Tar Heels for 40 minutes is the only way to finish it right.

An Illinois native, Steve Wiseman has covered Duke athletics since 2010 for the Durham Herald-Sun and Raleigh News & Observer. Prior to his arrival in Durham, he worked for newspapers in Columbia and Spartanburg, S.C., Biloxi, Miss., and Charlotte covering beats including the NFL’s Carolina Panthers and New Orleans Saints, University of South Carolina athletics and the S.C. General Assembly.