North Carolina had to give credit where credit was due.
In part three this season in the UNC-Duke rivalry, Duke freshman Zion Williamson, who missed all but 36 seconds of the first two games after spraining his knee, was unstoppable Friday in the semifinals of the ACC tournament.
He scored 31 points, including the game-winning put-back layup with 31 seconds left. The offensive rebound came off Williamson’s own miss, but he was too quick and jumped higher than the rest of North Carolina’s players to corral the rebound and score.
“The guy that’s been hurt came back and put on his superman jersey again and was incredible,” North Carolina coach Roy Williams said.
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The Tar Heels led Duke by 13 points with a little more than six minutes left in the first half. They appeared to be the better team and looked more confident. Williamson started 2 of 6 from the floor. But he made 11 of his last 13 shots to help the Blue Devils grab momentum and win 74-73.
“He’s a good player, he’s explosive, he’s very talented,” UNC senior Luke Maye said of Williamson. “But I mean, it comes down to a team game, I thought it was a great game and we didn’t have the ball bounce our way.”
The Tar Heels had multiple cold stretches in the second half. After taking a 65-63 lead with 8:22 left in the game, UNC did not make another field goal for nearly five minutes.
Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski put Duke reserve guard Jordan Goldwire on UNC graduate Cam Johnson, who had 16 points in the first half. The move worked. Goldwire had two steals in 28 minutes. He held Johnson to 3-of-10 shooting in the second half.
The Tar Heels had trouble scoring after Duke finally gained momentum. Their offense became stagnant, and the shots they took were often contested.
UNC shot 40 percent from the floor as a team, and finished 4-of-27 from the 3-point line. Of the five Tar Heels who took more than three shots, none shot above 39 percent. The Tar Heels struggled from behind the 3-point line in the first game against Duke, too, finishing 2 of 20. But the difference in that game, was they dominated in the paint.
In this game, Duke outscored UNC in the paint 50-38. Credit Williamson, who had 22 points in the paint.
“We know we’ve got to get better on offense, that’s pretty clear,” UNC senior Kenny Williams said.
The Tar Heels’ loss to Duke snapped an eight-game winning streak that included the two wins over Duke without Williamson. The Tar Heels were also eliminated from the ACC tournament, as Duke advances to the finals to face No. 4 seed Florida State.
“There’s no relief when you lose a game,” Johnson said. “And this was one that we wanted to win, this is one that we thought we should win, this is one we could have won.”
Said, Maye: “It’s tough to go out like that. We’ve just got to get better.”
The loss for the Tar Heels doesn’t mean the end. They lost to Duke, a top five team in the polls, by one point with three shots at the rim to win it. It was also only their second loss in their last 16 games. And the winner of the ACC tournament does not always win an NCAA title.
Of the 13 times ACC teams won an NCAA title in the last 50 years, only six won the ACC tournament that year. When North Carolina won it all in 2017, the Tar Heels lost to Duke in the semifinals of the ACC tournament. The Tar Heels did not win the ACC tournament in 2005 or 2009, when they won national titles.
“We’ll learn from our mistakes and those we made in this game, and we’ll use that to propel us to a national championship,” UNC junior wing Brandon Robinson said. “It’s not the end of the world. You can win six games in the NCAA tournament and it will change your whole life.”