North Carolina senior Cam Johnson was tired of hearing the question. And he knew it was coming after the Tar Heels’ 83-70 win over Louisville in the quarterfinals of the ACC tournament.
When the second seeded Tar Heels play in the semifinals, they’ll face No. 3 seeded Duke, who beat No. 6 seeded Syracuse late Thursday night.
As a reporter began to ask whether Johnson would rather face a healthy Duke team — presumably with Zion Williamson, who played on Thursday — Johnson rolled his eyes and let out a sigh.
“We’ll play whoever comes across us tomorrow,” Johnson said. “We’ll be ready and we’ll give it our best shot.”
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UNC sophomore Garrison Brooks said the same.
“Whether it’s Syracuse or Duke, it does not matter to me,” Brooks said. “I don’t care anything about all that other stuff.”
Williamson suffered a knee sprain in the first 30 seconds of the first UNC-Duke game on Feb. 20. With his back to the basket, Williamson tried to plant his left foot in the ground to switch directions. His foot came out of his shoe, and he suffered a knee sprain. He missed the rest of the regular season, including the second UNC-Duke game in Chapel Hill.
UNC (27-5) won both games.
Some critics and Duke fans questioned the Tar Heels’ two wins because they came without Williamson, who averages 21.6 points per game and 8.8 rebounds, and was voted ACC Player of the Year. Some believe if Duke were to beat UNC in the semi-final, the Blue Devils would jump the Tar Heels for a No. 1 seed, despite winning the season series. Call it the “Zion-effect.”
“I think they have to beat Carolina in the semis because, with or without Zion, if they go 0‑3 against the Tar Heels, I don’t see how you can make them a 1 seed ahead of them,” ESPN bracket analyst Joe Lunardi said Wednesday in a conference call. “And my opinion is, if they do beat them with him, then that almost counteracts the two losses which occurred largely without him.”
That opinion doesn’t sit well with the Tar Heels, who feel they beat Duke fair and square. Teams suffer injuries all the time, and they have to adjust. But this was Williamson, one of the top players in the country, and the questions continue to persist.
The Tar Heels are one of the hottest teams in college basketball right now, having won 15 of their last 16 games after their latest win over Louisville.
They held a 10-point lead at halftime and never let it go. Both UNC freshman guard Coby White and senior forward Luke Maye had 19 points each. White added seven rebounds and six assists, and Maye had nine rebounds.
But it was the Tar Heels’ defense in the second half that helped seal the win. After Louisville cut UNC’s lead to 68-61 with a little more than eight minutes left to play, the Tar Heels began to get stops.
Maye blocked two shots and intercepted a pass, and the Tar Heels held the Cardinals scoreless for the next four minutes. The Tar Heels went on an 11-0 run to extend their lead to 18 points with less than five minutes left in the game.
“We got turnovers and run outs and we got layups,” UNC senior guard Kenny Williams said. “I think they got a little tired and we were able to run out and get the layups, and we got a little bit momentum there. I knew at that point, there was no turning it.”
The lead was too much for the Cardinals to come back from.
UNC and Duke will play in the late game Friday night in the semifinals in Charlotte.
When asked whether he’d rather play Duke, Roy Williams said, “Frankly my dear.” Maye interjected. “I knew he would say that,” he said.
“I really don’t,” Williams added. “Come on, we are here, and if they bring Golden State Warriors out we’ll play, if it’s Duke we’ll play, if it’s Syracuse we’ll play.”