Luke DeCock

Finally, Zion Williamson gets a real chance at the rivalry, and he leaves a mark

This was his moment, finally arrived, victory not his alone but certainly his to savor as much as he liked. Zion Williamson, amid the pandemonium at center court, pounded his chest. He came back for this.

“Why would I pass up the experience of playing in the biggest rivalry ever?” Williamson asked after a performance and a game that rendered that question entirely rhetorical.

His name will be forever attached to this rivalry now, and not merely for how he bizarrely exited the first game but for how he dominated the third, and best of the bunch. This was not only one of the best games between Duke and North Carolina in the ACC tournament, but one of the best ACC tournament games ever played. Not N.C. State and Maryland in 1974, but in the conversation with the others.

And Williamson left his mark, not only with the game-winner, slicing through a crowd of three North Carolina players to tip in his own miss and make it 74-73, but with a soaring tomahawk dunk on a second-half fast break, leaving the earth’s surface an impossible distance from the rim.

That one, finally, earned a 10 from teammate RJ Barrett, the Robert Parker of Williamson dunks.

Williamson’s presence loomed over this game as his absence had the last two, and the combination of his return and North Carolina’s determination to post its first three-game sweep of the Blue Devils since 1976 compressed the Spectrum Center to critical mass. Somehow, this managed to meet expectations, the crowd standing for the final minutes, the noise deafening, blood pressures skyrocketing.

North Carolina swung first, pushing the pace at one end, daring Duke to shoot from outside at the other. The Blue Devils were completely out of sorts when Mike Krzyzewski did a very un-K-like thing. He dipped deep into his bench like Rod Roddy calling contestants out of the audience. Jordan Goldwire, come on down. Antonio Vrankovic, you’re the next contestant.

“I don’t think it was desperation as much as, who do we have in uniform?” Krzyzewski said.

North Carolina was prepared for a Duke lineup that included Cam Reddish and Jack White, not this one put together with twine and duct tape. The knuckle curve worked, thanks to Goldwire’s defense on Cam Johnson and Vrankovic’s muscle inside. At one point, Vrankovic threw a pass under the basket to Goldwire for a layup, more proof that anything can happen in a Duke-Carolina game. Goldwire also scored the biggest non-Zion bucket of the game, when North Carolina knocked the ball loose for a steal under the Duke basket only for the ball to bounce to Goldwire for an easy lay-in.

That’s the second time this season Goldwire’s defense has saved Duke’s bacon, but it was Williamson who pushed Duke from behind and pulled from the front. He looked out of gas at times, but somehow was able to regroup again and again. His putback put Duke ahead with 31 seconds left to give him 31 points, and then it was a festival of misses – which, after all the makes, made the ending all the more agonizing.

Johnson had a chance for an immediate answer. The Tar Heels were trying to feed Coby White for a back-door layup but Duke snuffed that out, leaving Johnson space on the left wing in the process. In that moment, as the ball left his hand, it wasn’t merely the result hanging in the balance. If that shot goes in, Johnson’s photo is forever attached to this game as it slides into ACC lore.

“It felt great coming off the hand,” Johnson said. “I could have bet a thousand dollars right there that shot was falling, but it just didn’t. Sometimes that happens. Sometimes that’s the difference between winning and losing.”

Sometimes, it’s the difference between making history and having history made at your expense.

Barrett missed a pair of free throws and White hustled up the court with 10.6 seconds to go. White missed, Nassir Little’s tip rimmed out, and Williamson strutted to center court, soaking up the roar.

“The guy that’s been hurt came back and put on his Superman jersey again,” Roy Williams said.

Frankly my dear, no asterisk is needed on North Carolina’s two wins without him, but these two are impossibly evenly matched with him. This was the Carolina-Duke game we all hoped for and we all deserved, and both teams delivered.

It might as well have been for a title, the way it felt – might as well have been in the Final Four, if they still played the Final Four in buildings that allowed an atmosphere like this – but Duke has to come back Saturday night and do it all over again against Florida State, a team with the kind of muscular defensive presence that will test any team that just expended this kind of energy, physical and mental both.

In a very different way, that will be as much of a test as this was. It’s hard to believe anyone who played in Friday’s game – who watched that game, even – will recover in time. But the ACC tournament marches on, and just because that semifinal will be hard to top doesn’t mean it’s impossible.

Sports columnist Luke DeCock has covered four Final Fours, the Summer Olympics, the Super Bowl and the Carolina Hurricanes’ Stanley Cup. He joined The News & Observer in 2000 to cover the Hurricanes and the NHL before becoming a columnist in 2008. A native of Evanston, Ill., he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania and has won multiple national and state awards for his columns and feature writing while twice being named North Carolina Sportswriter of the Year.