Duke, UNC deliver a trilogy fight that lives up to the hype | NCAA Basketball
CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Like the “Thrilla in Manila” almost 44 years ago, sometimes the third matchup between a pair of heavyweights is second to none.
A faulty shoe starved the college basketball universe of a close fight in the first two bouts, but the return of the 6-7, 285-pound freshman basketball champion of the world — Zion Williamson — finally gave Duke the edge it needed to be able to rumble with North Carolina and avoid another early knockout.
“Back and forth, back and forth,” Blue Devils guard/forward Cam Reddish said of Duke’s 74-73 victory over UNC at Spectrum Center. “It was definitely a dogfight from start to finish. Our guys fought really hard and came out with a win.”
The two ACC prizefighters exchanged blows for the entire 40 minutes. Just when one team appeared destined for a game-ending run, a counter was never far behind.
UNC’s Cam Johnson came out of the gates red hot, scoring 14 points in the first 11 minutes to help the Tar Heels (27-6) build a 13-point lead. The Blue Devils (28-5) were rattled; they hit just six of their first 17 shots. Even Williamson, the Blue Devil panacea, started a mortal 2 for 5. A UNC blowout trilogy was in the making.
But a Duke team loaded with copious five-star freshman phenoms had a pair of aces up its sleeve that weren’t seen in either of the two previous matchups: Jordan Goldwire and Antonio Vrankovic.
The two role players applied lockdown defense and helped to spur a 24-11 run to end the half and even the score as the teams headed to the locker rooms.
“Those kids gave us energy,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “Instead of [R.J. Barrett and Williamson] giving energy to a teammate, they were getting energy from a teammate.”
The second half brought back the superhuman Zion of 24 hours prior. He knocked down 3s, blocked shots and jammed tomahawk dunks in transition. The superstar finished with a game-high 31 points, including the go-ahead bucket with 31 seconds remaining to save Duke from a season sweep by the Tar Heels.
“He put on his Superman jersey,” UNC coach Roy Williams said.
Barrett had a chance to ice the game with a pair of free throws with 12.4 seconds left, but he missed both of them. Coby White could only manage a contested shot against Tre Jones that bounced out as the horn sounded.
“The way we got back into the game wasn’t strategy at all,” Jones said. “It was all heart, fight and how much we wanted it.”
The victory sets up a championship game Saturday against Florida State, which upset top-seeded Virginia 69-59 earlier in the night. Duke beat FSU 80-78 on Jan. 12 on a Reddish 3-pointer with 0.8 seconds to go.
Friday’s ACC semifinal between the Tobacco Road rival proved two things:
First, Duke is everything everyone anticipated at the beginning of the year when it’s at full strength. Williamson doesn’t need to be perfect. His performance Friday was filled with grimaces, swearing and punching the basket structure, yet Duke still managed to prevail.
Second, UNC is not in any way diminished. The Tar Heels had to listen to the “asterisk” talk about their two wins over the Blue Devils. Even with Williamson scoring 31 points, UNC had a chance to win on the final possession .
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Both teams proved capable of going the distance. Both teams proved worthy of earning a 1-seed in the NCAA Tournament. If that happens to be the case, then Duke-UNC the tetralogy is going to be one hell of a show.
“We’re fighters,” Reddish said. “Regardless of the situation, regardless of who’s here and who’s not, we’re always going to keep pushing and keep fighting until the buzzer goes off.”