Zion Williamson craved this setting, this showdown with North Carolina, this chance to finally deliver against Duke’s biggest rival.
The 6-7 freshman told his teammates so a week ago, after he sat on the bench in street clothes with a sprained knee when the Tar Heels won 79-70 at the Smith Center on March 9.
All players have bravado, especially great ones. But this was different.
He vowed to help Duke avoid three losses in a season to the Tar Heels and his 31 points and 11 rebounds in Friday’s ACC tournament semifinal are why the Blue Devils won 74-73 at the Spectrum Center.
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While all that is true, this was not a night all about one player, no matter how great he was.
Williamson scored the game’s final basket with 31 seconds left to put Duke ahead. But rewind about 90 minutes to the point when UNC led 33-20 in the same game.
The Blue Devils were keenly aware no Duke team had lost three times to UNC in a season since 1976.
Despite that, the Tar Heels were controlling the game just as they did while winning the previous two this season.
Williamson couldn’t do it alone.
Jordan Goldwire and Antonio Vrankovic saw to it he didn’t have to. That’s right. On a team loaded with projected first-round draft picks, a sophomore guard who was headed to Eastern Kentucky before Duke added him in spring 2017 and a senior who didn’t think he’d play Friday night played key roles in the win that advanced Duke to Saturday’s ACC title game against Florida State..
“I do have confidence in the guys,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said, “and just ask them that, when their number’s called to, you know, just be yourself and play your butt off.”
Goldwire did that for 28 minutes on Friday night. He didn’t commit a turnover. He scored four points, grabbed three rebounds and recorded two steals.
Not a big statistical production but key plays nonetheless from a guy who averaged 7.8 minutes per game previously.
After UNC’s fast start, Krzyzewski paired Goldwire with Tre Jones, two point guards working together. That helped slow the Tar Heels from getting the ball upcourt quickly to score before Duke’s half-court defense was set.
“Really, if you watch, they get down so fast and I thought a big key for us in defending them once he got in was how fast he got down the court,” Krzyzewski said. “He took away, he fanned out and they weren’t able to pass ahead. Then they had to run more halfcourt offense and he was really a big part of, it was the turning point of the game, really, his defense.”
Goldwire wasn’t available after the game to talk about his performance. He was receiving intravenous fluids after playing himself to that level of exhaustion.
“He’s able to apply pressure like crazy, bring up our energy for sure,” Jones said. “He gives us a huge spark.”
The basketball gods that Krzyzewski so often mentions even rewarded Goldwire for his hustle. With UNC up 71-70, Duke’s RJ Barrett drove into the lane and had the ball knocked away. The loose ball rolled right to Goldwire under the basket. He laid it in for a 72-71 Duke lead with 1:46 to play.
Vrankovic’s night was done by that point but he’s also turned in a performance that helped Duke win. It came in a game in which he didn’t expect to play at all.
With starting center Marques Bolden out with a sprained knee, the 7-0 center played 9:52 against UNC, scoring two points with two assists and a blocked shot on UNC star Luke Maye. Like Goldwire, he played turnover-free basketball.
Vrankovic averaged only 5.1 minutes per game this season.
“One of the coolest things was blocking Luke Maye,” Vrankovic said. “A great player who has had a phenomenal experience at UNC. For someone who doesn’t see much of the floor, to be blocking him in a situation like this is an incredible experience.”
Vrankovic was only on the court to make that block 25 seconds into the second half because he played well enough in the first half to be part of Duke’s starting five after halftime.
Krzyzewski went with Goldwire and Vrankovic to start the second half after they helped Duke erase UNC’s 13-point lead in the final six minutes until halftime to leave the teams tied at 44.
It certainly was a strange sight. Here was Krzyzewski, known for shortening his bench to seven or so players by the time March arrives, playing deep reserves like Goldwire and Vrankovic in an ACC tournament semifinal.
No one cares how strange it was now. It worked, allowing Williamson to keep his vow to help Duke finally beat UNC this season.
“I’m proud of our guys,” Krzyzewski said, “We had a big meeting this morning about giving energy and anyone who is in the game, give the guys who have been in the game a long time, energy. Don’t expect them to give energy to you. And I thought our bench did that tonight really well.”