Published 12:12 AM EDT Mar 16, 2019
CHARLOTTE — Duke and North Carolina have never played each other in a Final Four. It would be fitting if this is the year it finally happens because after three games, who wouldn’t want more of this?
In a 40-minute track meet that doubled as an ACC tournament semifinal, Zion Williamson’s presence allowed Duke to turn the tables after a pair of regular season defeats and advance to play Florida State in Saturday night’s championship game.
Tapping in his own miss with 31 seconds left to give Duke the lead, the Blue Devils held on 74-73 after North Carolina guard Coby White missed a 3-pointer and a put-back wouldn’t go at the buzzer.
With Williamson scoring 31 points and grabbing 11 rebounds after missing all but 30 seconds of the first two meetings with North Carolina due to injury, Duke almost certainly clinched a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.
It didn’t come easy for Duke, which seemed to take control of the game midway through the second half, only to fall behind 71-67 with 2:46 remaining. From there, however, Williamson took over on both ends, scoring five of the game’s final seven points and altering two North Carolina shots near the rim in the closing minutes.
Duke survived despite an inefficient game from its other freshmen stars, as R.J. Barrett made just 5-of-15 shots (2-of-9 from 3-point range) and missed two free throws in the closing seconds that gave North Carolina an opportunity to win. Cam Reddish was largely a non-factor, scoring six points with five turnovers.
Opinion: Virginia shows little evidence this March will be different from past failures
Bubble Watch: Conference tourney winners and losers before Selection Sunday
In a game that illustrated how different Duke is when Williamson is on the court, the Blue Devils trailed by as many as 13 points early until Williamson scored seven straight, sparking a run that eventually tied the game at 44 going into halftime.
North Carolina (27-6) will go into the NCAA tournament disappointed that an ACC title slipped from its grasp but taking some solace in how close it came while making just 4-of-27 from the 3-point line — especially if it ends up meeting Duke again in Minneapolis.
North Carolina could still potentially hold on to a top seed based on its strong performance Friday. With the Tar Heels, Blue Devils and Virginia, the ACC could end up with three of the four No. 1 seeds depending on how the NCAA tournament selection committee views Gonzaga and the winners of the Big Ten and SEC tournaments.