CHARLOTTE, N.C. — It wasn’t onerous for Roy Williams to recap what modified between his crew’s first two matchups with Duke, which led to dominant North Carolina victories, and what transpired Friday night time, with the Blue Devils edging out a 74-73 win which may effectively have shifted the pecking order for a No. 1 seed within the NCAA event.
“The guy that’s been hurt came back,” Williams mentioned, “put on his Superman jersey and was incredible.”
“The guy” on this case can be Zion Williamson, and North Carolina heard its share about him even earlier than he took the court docket.
Williamson injured his knee on Feb. 20 when his sneaker tore on the opening possession of Duke’s first recreation in opposition to the Tar Heels, and his absence overshadowed a signature win for UNC. Three weeks later, he sat out the regular-season finale in Chapel Hill, and once more the Heels dominated. So the query loomed: Would UNC nonetheless be the higher crew with Duke at full energy?
Friday’s win provided a solution of kinds, however not one Williams or the remainder of the Tar Heels had been able to affirm with any sense of certainty.
“He adds a different dimension to their team,” UNC’s Cam Johnson mentioned of Williamson’s return. “He does a lot of things they don’t have without him, so it kind of changes the way they play offensively. But they ran the same kind of sets, and we got the same kind of shots we wanted as the first two games. He’s a great player, and he definitely adds something for their team, but he wasn’t our focus.”
North Carolina definitely had its probabilities to win even with Williamson on the court docket, a chance to upend its most hated rival for the third time in a single season, and an opportunity to erase the cloud that lingered over its first two victories. Johnson shot a three with 18 seconds remaining that might’ve received it, and he was certain it had when it left his hand.
“I’d have bet $1,000 right there that shot was going in,” he mentioned, “but it didn’t.”
Nor did Coby White‘s last jumper, nor Nassir Little‘s put-back try. And that was the takeaway for the Heels. With out Williamson, there was no query which crew was higher. With him, the distinction was one shot — a shot that felt excellent leaving Johnson’s hand, however did not fall.
And but, Williamson’s affect was one thing bordering on transcendent. Within the first two video games, Duke mustered simply 58 factors within the paint mixed. With Williamson occupying prime actual property Friday, the Blue Devils had 50 — probably the most UNC has allowed in a recreation in eight years, based on ESPN Stats & Info.
For the sport, Williamson completed with 31 factors and 11 rebounds — the primary participant to publish a 25-10 line in consecutive ACC event video games since Tim Duncan, 22 years in the past. His steal that led to a monster dunk was a turning level within the recreation. His final bucket, after corralling his personal miss, was the distinction within the last rating. His work on each ends of the court docket made Duke a special crew.
“He’s able to open it up a lot, and on the defensive end, too,” level guard Tre Jones mentioned. “He’s able to guard anybody when we switch, and he’s on the boards always. He just flies around.”
Williamson helped cowl for Cam Reddish, who was -11 for the sport with 5 turnovers. And his success within the paint overshadowed R.J. Barrett’s 5-of-15 capturing night time. It might’ve been Barrett’s two misses on the free-throw line with 12 seconds to play that outlined the sport. As an alternative, it was his resolution to move on a play designed for him and dish to Williamson for the sport’s last factors that proved decisive.
Duke now takes on Florida State for an opportunity on the ACC title. The Blue Devils have only one loss with their full beginning 5 on the court docket, and that makes for a powerful case for the choice committee to place them on the highest line and ship them to close by Columbia, South Carolina — simply down the street from Williamson’s hometown of Spartanburg.
Or maybe the primary two video games with out Williamson nonetheless carry weight with the committee. Williams made that case after Friday’s loss, noting “injuries are a part of it, too.”
Added ahead Luke Maye: “We had a tough loss, but we’re still a great team. We’ve got six more games, hopefully.”
And after Friday’s prize struggle, it is perhaps that the ultimate resolution on which crew is healthier will likely be made after yet one more rematch within the NCAA event.
“Would I love to see them? Honestly, if we match up against them, it’ll be a great game,” Williamson mentioned. “But I’m not going to sit here and say, ‘Oh my God, I hope we can play them again.’ I’m not starting any extra drama.”