CHARLOTTE, N.C. — One of the greatest games in Duke-North Carolina history was played Friday night. Which means one of the greatest college basketball games was played Friday night.
We were robbed of what could have truly been a magical three-game series 30 seconds into the first contest, but we still got two solid home-and-home regular-season meetings to make up for it. This one was different, and it was because of Zion Williamson.
In Duke’s 74-73 win over UNC in the ACC tournament semifinal, in a game that saw four lead changes in the final four minutes, Williamson had a game-high 31 points in 35 minutes. He scored 11 of Duke’s final 13 points in the final 10 minutes. He gave everyone the show we hoped for.
“It was tough watching the first two games,” Williamson said. “I watched my brothers out there battling and I wished I could go to war with them but it was very exciting to get out there and play. I mean, the rivalry lived up to what I expected it to be.”
Down by one after a Nassir Little dunk with 47 seconds left, Williamson got the ball on the low block against Little and missed the layup. But he quickly diagnosed not only that it would be off but where the rebound would be. Little reached behind him to box out the future No. 1 overall pick, but Williamson had stepped inside to the center of the lane for the rebound and a quick put-back on what would be the game winner.
Throughout the year, but especially this weekend after missing the previous five-plus games due to a knee sprain, Williamson has displayed extraordinary athleticism. His 6’7”, 285-pound body coils and recoils like no other athlete playing college basketball, and it almost makes the viewer believe he can do anything on the court, just because. That would be an insult to his uncommonly high basketball IQ that 1) allows him to figure out when and how to conserve his energy and 2) consistently places himself in the right position on both sides of the floor.
“The guy that’s been hurt came back and put on his Superman jersey again and was incredible,” 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.”
Williamson benefitted greatly by Garrison Brooks’s second-half foul troubles. In less than five seconds midway through the second half, Brooks—Carolina’s best option to defend Williamson—got his third and fourth fouls and had to exit the game. When he returned at the under-four timeout, Duke immediately fed Williamson in the post. Within a minute, Brooks would pick up his fifth foul, forcing Williams to put the 6’6” Little on Zion duty since bigs Sterling Manley and Brandon Huff aren’t fast enough to cover him.
This was a game the Tar Heels led by 13 at one point in the first half when Duke erased the deficit by halftime with the help of an unlikely duo of bench players, Antonio Vrankovic and Jordan Goldwire. Goldwire’s defense especially kept Duke in it late in the first half, and coach Mike Krzyzewski rewarded the two with second-half starts.
“Both those kids gave energy, and maybe that’s one of the reasons R.J. (Barrett) and Zion weren’t as tired,” said Krzyzewski, noting Duke’s greatest flaw without Williamson for those six games, “because they were … instead of giving energy to a teammate, they were getting energy from a teammate.”
Carolina had its chance to win and, thus, take three games from Duke for the first time since the 1975-76 season. Before Barrett missed two free throws with 12 seconds left up by one, Williams called a timeout to assess UNC’s options. Carolina had a play drawn up for a three-pointer, but short of needing that, the plan was to attack the basket.
But Duke’s defense off the missed free throw made that impossible for freshman guard Coby White, who put up UNC’s 27th three-point attempt on Friday night and found it unsuccessful like 22 others. Little’s follow attempt was off and Duke lived to duel Saturday against Florida State for what could be the Blue Devils’ league-leading 21st ACC tournament title.
While this game was obviously different, none of this means the first two rounds of Duke-Carolina don’t count. The idea of an asterisk was without merit on Feb. 20 and it still is today. Duke, while obviously much better with Williamson, was clearly one of the country’s best teams without him, too. The Blue Devils had 39 minutes and 24 seconds to adjust to life without Williamson in the first game before getting blown out by 16 at home. And they had two weeks and all 40 minutes to prepare for what was the regular-season finale loss in Chapel Hill.
But Carolina has felt a measure of disrespect, something that was surely compounded in the immediate aftermath of the game that would have settled any debate. Unprompted, Williams had a response.
“I can go back and many times tell you that we have had injuries that really hurt us and Zion being hurt really hurt Duke, but it was still Duke-North Carolina,” Williams said.
“I don’t know how many, but we have been to several Final Fours. We have never won a tournament championship but one time. So our season’s not over.”
Which leads to two ideas now: The first is whether Carolina gets a No. 1 seed on Selection Sunday. It would seem Virginia and Duke have locked up half the top seeds, with UNC, Gonzaga, Kentucky and Michigan State all vying for the final two. Any reasonable observer of Friday night’s game would believe there’s no way the Tar Heels aren’t one of the four best teams in the country, and winning 15 of their last 17 in the best conference in America should be enough proof.
Which roles into No. 2, and the wish across basketball that we get that game again on Monday, April 8 in Minneapolis. Never before have these two teams faced each other at any stage of the NCAA tournament. And you can ask almost any graduate from either university. The risk of losing to the rival in the national championship and living under the eternal trump card outweighs the reward of winning it.
But if this year’s national championship comes down to the best two teams in the nation, we may for the first time get Duke-Carolina Part IV.