The third time was indeed the charm for Duke.
Duke edged North Carolina 74-73 Thursday night in the ACC Tournament semifinals, setting up a title match Saturday night against Florida State, a somewhat surprise winner over top-seeded Virginia.
The second half was about as pulsating as college-basketball can be, neither team leading by more than two possessions in a half that wasn’t settled until two UNC shots came up empty in the dying seconds.
The legend of Zion Williamson was burnished after another dominant performance, 31 points, 11 rebounds, a steal and a block, 13-for-19 from the field.
Roy Williams said of Williamson “the guy who’s been hurt came back and put on his Superman cape again.”
Williamson said “it was tough watching the first two games. But I was excited to be out there playing. It was everything I thought it would be.”
But Duke also got a significant contribution from a couple of guys on the bench.
Duke jumped off to a 4-0 lead but Cam Johnson scored the next eight points, putting the Tar Heels ahead.
Duke was cold early, shooting three-for-10 at the first media timeout, at which they trailed 8-6.
Duke stayed in the game on the offensive boards but were unable to slow down Johnson, who had 14 points in the first nine minutes, sparking North Carolina to a 24-17 lead at the second media timeout.
Duke seemed wobbly, maybe even over-matched early. Cam Reddish picked up two quick fouls and played only seven minutes in the first half.
One bizarre sequence sums up Duke’s early travails.
With just over seven minutes left in first half and Duke down 29-20, Carolina’s Seventh Woods air-balled a three. With no Carolina player near the ball, all Duke had to do was let it bounce serenely out of bounds. But R.J. Barrett decided to grab the ball and start a fast break.
He stepped on the baseline.
North Carolina ball.
And of course, they scored.
Duke fell behind by 13 at 33-20 and Javin DeLaurier picked up his second and third fouls practically on top of each other.
With Jack White ineffective early and Marques Bolden still sidelined with a knee injury, Krzyzewski rolled the dice and went with little-used senior Antonio Vrankovic. The seven-footer gave Duke a lift, as did reserve guard Jordan Goldwire.
Especially Goldwire, who notched almost 28 minutes. He spent a lot of those guarding Johnson, giving up a half foot but helping hold Johnson without a field goal for the final 11:55 of the first half.
Goldwire ignited Duke’s defense. Johnson said “they ramped up the pressure. We could have handled it better.”
Williams also praised Goldwire and Duke’s defense.
“Their defense forced us into quick shots. We didn’t attack. We took the easy way out and took quick jump shots.”
“I think we were just going too fast and playing at their tempo,” Williamson said. “We just had to slow it down.”
Williamson tied the game at 44-44 with his second three-pointer of the half and the teams went into the locker room all even.
Williamson had 16 points and six rebounds in the first half. Tre Jones added nine points, Barrett eight points and four assists.
Krzyzewski praised Goldwire.
“He was a significant factor defensively, not just on Johnson but getting back (in transition). He was the first guy back all the time to help stop that break.”
Vrankovic gave Duke a bucket, a couple of assists and a physical presence inside in six first-half minutes.
“I’m sure he didn’t think he was going to play 10 minutes tonight,” Krzyzewski said of Vrankovic, “but he did and he played very well. Both of those kids gave energy. Our bench gave us a big lift.”
Vrankovic and Goldwire started the second half--they earned it. Vrankovic exited after two minutes for DeLaurier, who picked up his fourth foul after less than a minute.
Duke went small most of the game after that.
Reddish replaced Goldwire shortly after and converted a drive to give Duke a 52-46 lead, its biggest of the game and the culmination of a 11-2 run spanning two halves.
But Reddish missed the and-one that would have completed the three-point play, Luke Maye converted an offensive rebound, Duke turned it over three straight times, once on a two-on-one fast break and the next thing you know, Duke is calling a timeout at 52-52, with 13:56 left.
Duke regrouped and threatened to get some separation. But another Maye stick-back and a Barrett turnover trying to get it inside to Williamson blunted the momentum.
A trademark Williamson steal-and-dunk put Duke up 63-58 at the midpoint of the second half. But Duke couldn’t keep the Tar Heels off their offensive boards and Duke fell behind 65-63, with 7:33 left.
Duke held Carolina scoreless for almost five minutes and regained the lead. Duke had a 67-65 lead and the ball four times but came up empty all four times, two turnovers and Reddish missing the first end of the bonus points left on the floor.
It all fell apart right after the last media timeout, Carolina getting a 5-0 run. But Williamson muscled it inside for a three-point play and Goldwire corralled a loose ball for a layup and Duke was back on top at 72-71, with 1:46 left.
Buckle the seat belt.
Carolina went back on top on a Nassir Little dunk.
By this point Williamson had fouled out Garrison Brooks, UNC’s best interior defender. They didn’t have anyone who could slow down the big man and he put Duke up 74-73, with 31 seconds left, rebounding his own miss.
Cam Johnson missed an open three. He said that he would have bet a thousand dollars it was going in.
Barrett grabbed the rebound and drew the quick foul, with 12 seconds left. But he missed both freebies and the Tar Heels pushed it up court. But Duke got back, Coby White missed a tough runner, Johnson missed a follow shot and the clock struck zero.
Duke has to come back and do it again in a few hours. Krzyzewski said he wasn’t concerned about getting his young team to focus but was concerned about fatigue.
“I think it’s more getting them physically ready because we’ve had two exhausting games in a row. If we want to win in the tournament, we have to win two big-time games in three days.”
He added that getting three games in three days was a great chance to get used to playing together after Williamson’s injury.
Krzyzewski said Duke was “hoping” for next weekend for Bolden’s return.
Barrett (15) and Jones (11) joined Williamson in double figures. Barrett added seven assists.
Johnson led Carolina with 23 points.
Carolina outrebounded Duke 44-39 and only had eight turnovers. But they also shot a woeful 14.8 percent, which Williams cited as a primary reason for Duke’s win.
Duke is now 28-5 and would seem to be in pretty good shape for a number one seed in that other tournament. But there’s still work to be done before Sunday.
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Alex O’ Connell
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