Just before two Duke free throws clanked off the rim with 12 seconds to play, Mike Krzyzewski said to his players from the sidelines, “We’re fine.”
Turns out, they were. Duke was stingy on defense during North Carolina’s final possession and thwarted a game-winning 3-pointer from Coby White and put-back attempt by Cameron Johnson.
Tar Heel fans can put the brooms away. This year won’t be a sweep.
In the ACC tournament semifinals, the No. 5 Duke Blue Devils bested their Tobacco Road rivals 74-73. An announced crowd of 20,116 people showed up for the game, a record for college basketball in Charlotte’s Spectrum Center. Duke will face Florida State for the ACC title on Saturday.
Had the No. 3 Tar Heels won, it would’ve marked the first time since the 1975-76 season that they had beaten Duke three times in one season.
Not so fast.
North Carolina good early, then stumbled
Cam Reddish left the floor about 10 minutes into the first half after picking up two fouls on charges. Reddish wouldn’t return until the second half, leaving Duke without a star player for a long stretch.
When Reddish went to the bench, North Carolina led by 10, but it would increase its lead to 13 at the 6:24 mark, when Garrison Brooks dunked off a feed from Coby White. That play capped off a 23-13 run by the Tar Heels.
And push the pace to the max. It's a master class so far. https://t.co/qwQVzOYSP0— Luke DeCock (@LukeDeCock) March 16, 2019
But really, the Tar Heels should have been leading by more. North Carolina took 14 3-pointers in the first half, but made just a trio of them. North Carolina finished the game shooting 14.8 percent from behind the arc, and sank just one 3-pointer in the whole second half.
Duke would roar back, finishing the first half on a 24-11 run to tie the game at 44-44 heading into halftime. The Blue Devils started the second half out on an 8-2 run, taking a six-point lead, their largest of the game.
“It stings...it hurts....we wanted to win that game. The only thing that makes it not so bad is it’s not the end of our season. We have bigger goals still to reach and accomplish.”— Brian Formica (@BrianFormica) March 16, 2019
-#UNC’s Kenny Williams #WXII pic.twitter.com/yD4rILS6kK
Zion vs. the Tar Heels
Perhaps the difference in this game? Zion Williamson.
Duke’s freshman phenom played just a handful of seconds in the Blue Devils' first meeting with the Tar Heels before blowing out his shoe and exiting with an injury. While nursing that injury, he missed the second regular season game vs. North Carolina, also a loss.
This was the second game back for Williamson, and he made his presence known in a big way, pouring in 31 points, 11 rebounds, a steal and a block.
He also threw down Earth-shaking dunks, like this.
Zion on a break should be illegal pic.twitter.com/TvaxFru4SL— CBS Sports (@CBSSports) March 16, 2019
Williamson also scored five of Duke’s final seven points. Here's the game-winner he bulldozed his way to the basket for.
Zion just willed this into the bucket 😳 pic.twitter.com/G4FESRoKTU— ESPN (@espn) March 16, 2019
Definitely don’t give it to Zion every time in crunch time there’s only a 90% chance he will score.— Bill Simmons (@BillSimmons) March 16, 2019
RJ Barrett was second in scoring for Duke, notching 15 points along with eight rebounds, seven assists and two blocks.
What impact will this game have on NCAA tournament seeding?
The Tar Heels and Blue Devils were both likely in line to get high seeds in the NCAA tournament. Some had wondered if the ACC could potentially get three No. 1 seeds, considering Virginia’s pretty awesome resume.
In his latest projection, released March 12, Andy Katz had Duke slated as a No. 1 seed in the Midwest and North Carolina as a No. 2 seed in the South. He also had Virginia pegged as a No. 1 seed in the East, but with the Cavaliers being upset by Florida State on Friday, we could see a shift from the committee.
Reminder: This is March. Crazy things happen. It’s not inconceivable to think we might see these two sides meet for a fourth time this season.
Mitchell Northam is a graduate of Salisbury University. His work has been featured at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the Orlando Sentinel, SB Nation, FanSided, USA Today and the Delmarva Daily Times. He grew up on Maryland's Eastern Shore and is now based in Durham, N.C.