About 30 minutes before No. 8 North Carolina was to take the court against No. 1 Duke at Cameron Indoor Stadium, a number of secret service officers and a former president walked in the visitor’s locker room.
The players’ mouths dropped. They were shocked. It was former president Barack Obama.
“It’s him. That’s black Jesus,” UNC sophomore forward Garrison Brooks joked.
“I was so nervous when he came in,” UNC freshman guard Coby White said.
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Obama, who sat courtside for Wednesday’s game, went into both Duke and UNC’s locker rooms before the game and spoke briefly to each team. UNC graduate senior Cam Johnson said he gave them an encouraging message, but doesn’t remember what Obama said.
“It was like I was in a virtual reality helmet looking at him,” Johnson said. “I don’t think I’ve ever been in shock that much.”
It was all nerves meeting the former president, but when the ball finally tipped, all of that seemed to go away for the Tar Heels. Duke star Zion Williamson went down with a knee injury in the first half and UNC took advantage, winning Round One of the two-game series 88-72.
No one will know how this would have gone, had Williamson played, but it remains the Tar Heels’ biggest win of the season. The win puts UNC (21-5, 11-2 ACC) in a three-way tie for first place atop the ACC standings with Duke (23-3, 11-2) and Virginia (23-2, 11-2).
Senior forward Luke Maye dominated in the post. The 6-8, 240-pound forward scored 30 points and grabbed 15 rebounds. Johnson was good, too. He had 26 points and 7 rebounds.
In order to win this game, the Tar Heels needed a lot to go right. And it did. They looked like the team with more poise. The Tar Heels forced the Blue Devils into 20 turnovers and a 35 percent field goal percentage.
Here are three other observations from UNC’s win over Duke:
1. Williamson’s absence mattered
When Williamson went out with the knee injury 36 seconds into the game, everything changed. The gameplan that Duke had developed, which incorporated the 6-7, 285-pound big man who averages 22.4 points per game, had to be thrown out.
“Everybody, be honest. When the big fella goes out of the game, it changes a lot of stuff for them,” UNC coach Roy Williams said. “Zion Williamson, I’ve never seen anything like him, and that was a huge blow for them. And having that happen during the course of the game, you don’t have time to prepare for it.”
The Blue Devils had to improvise. At times they had 6-7, 222-pound Jack White guarding Maye. That didn’t work. They also put 6-6, 183-pound guard Alex O’Connell on Maye. That didn’t work either.
Maye’s 30 points came on 11 of 17 shooting. He dominated in the paint. Maye has had three career games where he has had at least 30 points and 15 rebounds in the same game. Two have come against N.C. State, and this one against Duke.
Maye said he just enjoys playing against in-state teams.
“Second win I’ve gotten in Cameron,” Maye said. “Last time I didn’t play, so it’s a lot better to have a bigger role.”
Brooks played well in the post, too. He had 14 points and 8 rebounds.
Part of UNC’s gameplan had been to get Williamson in foul trouble and keep him off the floor, or limit his aggressiveness. Because he went out, Duke had to go to its bench earlier than normal.
At one point late in the first half, after Maye scored on a fastbreak layup, Duke’s players looked gassed. The Tar Heels had built a 30-17 lead and Mike Krzyzewski was forced to call a timeout.
“We were knocked back after that injury,” Krzyzewski said.
The Tar Heels led by as many as 22 points early in the second half.
2. Coby struggled, but Seventh was ready
Duke freshman Tre Jones’ defense was better than advertised. He guarded White as soon as he crossed halfcourt and made things tough for him. White looked rattled — perhaps by the atmosphere of the game too — and finished with six turnovers. He was 3 of 14 from the floor and had nine points.
Williams subbed in junior guard Seventh Woods when White struggled. Woods had more turnovers than Williams preferred, but said Woods gave the Tar Heels a lift.
“I just got to get guys to stop turning it over,” Williams said. “Nassir (Little) has three turnovers, Seventh has three, and Coby has six. Other than the turnovers, I thought Seventh was really, really good.”
Woods came up with a huge play late in the first half. After Johnson missed a wide open layup, Duke freshman Cam Reddish rebounded the ball. He attempted to a pass, but Woods stole it and found Brooks open for a dunk before the halftime buzzer sounded. That gave the Tar Heels a 42-32 lead at the half.
“Just go in there and try to control the game as much as possible,” Woods said of his mindset. “Just try to make the easy play.”
When White has his struggles Woods needs to be good. And he was that on Wednesday.
3. No 3’s, no problem
The Tar Heels started the first half 1 of 14 from behind the 3-point line and finished 2 of 20. Yet, the Tar Heels maintained a 10-point lead over the Blue Devils most of the second half.
Cam Johnson, who had 26 points, was 0 for 4 from 3. Coby White was 1 for 6.
“I told Coby and Cam between the two of them, they both had one good shot from 3,” Williams said. “They were rushed. I thought our 3’s in the first half were awfully rushed.”
The Tar Heels’ 3-point percentage (10 percent) is lowest in a UNC win since the 2012-13 opener against Gardner-Webb, when they shot 1 of 12 (8.3 percent).
Duke was bad too. Duke shot 8 of 39 from 3, which is 20.5 percent.
But UNC still shot well. The Tar Heels finished 50.7 percent from the floor overall. They also got to the glass, grabbing 10 offensive rebounds, which led to 14 second chance points.
“I think this win gives us a lot of confidence and shows us how good we can be,” UNC freshman Nassir Little said. “Just imagine if we had had an OK game shooting the ball.”
The Tar Heels got the win they were looking for. They are now 6-5 in Quadrant 1 games this season.