CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Finally healthy and back in the lineup, Zion Williamson got to leave his own impact on the Duke-North Carolina rivalry, leading the Blue Devils to a 74-73 win in the ACC Tournament semifinals Friday night.
Williamson led all scorers with 31 points on 13-for-19 shooting, adding 11 rebounds. And when the Blue Devils needed a go-ahead bucket in the final minute, Mike Krzyzewski put the ball in Zion’s hands. After driving to the basket against UNC freshman Nassir Little, Williamson’s first attempt at the rim missed. But then no one had more bounce than Williamson, who was able to elevate above everyone for the put-back to give Duke a one-point lead with 31 seconds remaining that it would hold for the remainder of the game.
“It was tough watching the first two games,” Williamson said after the game. “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.
“And I mean, to make the game-winning shot, honestly I got to give credit to RJ (Barrett, fellow Duke freshman) because the read was for him to fake the ball and take it to the basket, but he read the defense and he gave me the ball, and my teammates trust me to make the shot.”
A building packed to the brim with two shades of blue all seemed to agree on one thing throughout the evening: In a game between two of the best teams in the entire country, there was no question who was the best player on the court. Duke fans cheered, and North Carolina fans couldn’t help but let out shrieks of exasperation and awe as Williamson bounded up and down the court, getting out in transition and leaping around the basket to make plays at the rim.
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When Zion got out in the open floor, all 20,000-plus gathered in the Spectrum Center (a record attendance for a college basketball game in the building) held their breath. When Zion threw a dunk down, the place popped.
Barrett, who has been offering grades and ratings for Zion’s dunks all year, gave that one the highest honor.
“The one he had today where he took off outside the key on the fast break, I give that one a 10,” Barrett said with a smile. “I didn’t know he was going to dunk that one. It was tough.”
What made the evening all the more special was that while Williamson was putting on a show, North Carolina was pushing the pace and coming up with a response every time that the Blue Devils tried to pull a way. It was a title fight with no actual championship on the line, a game that felt in the moment like it meant everything even if the result only changes the seeding outlook for two teams already locked into being a No. 1 or a No. 2 when the NCAA Tournament field of 68 is revealed on Selection Sunday.
“The guy that’s been hurt came back and put on his superman jersey again and was incredible,” North Carolina coach Roy Williams said after the game. “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.”
North Carolina did not shoot the ball well from beyond the arc (4-for-27), and instead of winning battles inside like it did in the two wins against Duke, the Tar Heels were outscored 50-38 in the paint. Williams said that most of the games his teams win either come because of great shooting or great balance, and he didn’t feel like they got either, lamenting an impatience on offense and several possessions that ended because of rushing a shot.
With the win, Duke advances to Saturday’s championship game against Florida State after the Seminoles knocked off top-seeded Virginia in the first semifinal of the evening. Though the Blue Devils won’t have an opportunity to to complete a three-game sweep of Virginia, CBS Sports bracketology expert Jerry Palm says the Blue Devils still could jump ahead of the Wahoos and potentially even secure the No. 1 overall seed.