The night before North Carolina and Duke played for the third time in two months, the Blue Devils winning 74-73, players on both teams were asked about the idea of playing each other again, and this time with a healthy Zion Williamson.
Williamson sprained his knee in the first 36 seconds of the first game in Durham on Feb. 20. He tried to plant his foot in the lane and split his shoe. He missed the rest of the game and regular season, including the last UNC-Duke game in Chapel Hill, and returned during the ACC tournament against Syracuse.
North Carolina’s players were tired of hearing the question. “We’ll play whoever comes across us tomorrow,” UNC’s Cam Johnson said Friday.
Duke’s players downplayed the rivalry, but were excited to have Williamson back. The Tar Heels earned the season sweep over the Blue Devils.
On Friday, Williamson was back, scoring 31 points, grabbing 11 rebounds, and the game had the excitement the first two somewhat lacked. In those two games, the Tar Heels were the better team and won. But this one lived up to the hype. The Spectrum Center, which was filled with mostly Carolina blue shirts and jerseys, and some Duke blue, was loud.
It was a back-and-forth game until the end. After trailing by two points with about four minutes remaining, the Tar Heels went on a 6-0 run to take a four-point lead with three minutes left but Duke answered with a 5-0 run to retake the lead.
On the next possession, UNC freshman Nassir Little came up with a loose ball and dunked it to give the Tar Heels a one-point lead with 43.7 seconds left.
But Williamson answered. He drove, missed his layup and followed it up with his own put-back to give Duke the one-point lead with 31 seconds left.
The Tar Heels had two chances to win the game, but a Coby White jump shot with less than five seconds left went off the rim. Little rebounded the miss and tried to put it back up, but he came up short and Duke won.
White went to halfcourt, bent down and put his shirt over his face, as junior guard Seventh Woods came to pick him up.
Graduate senior Cam Johnson had 23 points to lead UNC. He also had a chance to win the game, but missed. Williamson made 11 of his final 13 shots and was 13 of 19 from the floor.
“The guy that’s been hurt came back and put on his superman jersey again and was incredible,” UNC coach Roy Williams said. “It’s such a blend of strength and power and quickness that we couldn’t stop him getting the basketball inside and going to the basket.”
The Tar Heels’ loss snaps an eight-game winning streak. Duke is 2-0 with Williamson back in the lineup and will play No. 4 seed Florida State in the ACC tournament championship game on Saturday.
The Tar Heels (27-6) will go home, hoping the NCAA committee will still grant them a No. 1 seed on Selection Sunday. Some bracket analysts believed prior to the game that if Duke beat UNC, the Blue Devils would earn a No. 1 seed, which would potentially move UNC down to a No. 2 seed.
North Carolina and Duke have met in the semifinals of the ACC tournament in three consecutive years now. Duke has now won two of the last three. Duke is 14-9 against UNC all-time in the ACC tournament.
“The rivalry lived up to what I expected it to be,” Williamson said. “And I mean, to make the game-winning shot, honestly I got to give credit to RJ (Barrett) because the read was for him to fake the ball and take it to the basket, but he read the defense and he gave me the ball and my teammates trust me to make the shot.”
The Tar Heels jumped out to an early 13-point lead after the first 14 minutes of the game. Johnson caught fire early. He scored his team’s first eight points and finished the first half leading the Tar Heels with 16 points.
Williamson started slow, making only two of his first six shots.
But the Blue Devils turned up their defensive pressure, Williamson got hot, and they slowly chipped away at the lead.
UNC did not make a field goal in the last two minutes and 45 seconds of the first half. Duke made five of its final six shots in the first half. A Williamson 3-pointer with 53 seconds left tied the score at 44 at halftime.
His 16 points at halftime led Duke.
In the second half, the Blue Devils picked up where they left off. Barrett was fouled on a layup, and made both free throws, giving Duke its first lead since 18:43 left in the first half. The Blue Devils started the second half on a 8-2 run to grab momentum and take a 52-46 lead.
But the Tar Heels soon answered. UNC senior forward Luke Maye scored a layup the cut the lead to four points. The Tar Heels forced a turnover, and White found Little for a fast-break dunk. And on the next possession, White got a steal, missed a layup and Little grabbed it off the rim and dunked it in to tie the game at 52.
A Williamson steal and breakaway dunk gave Duke a five-point lead with 9:53 left in the game. But as quickly as Duke grabbed the lead, UNC took it back, going on a 7-0 run over the next two minutes.
The game went back and forth for a few minutes. But Duke (28-5) fought back, and ultimately came out the winner in what will likely go down as a classic.