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Duke, led by Zion’s 31, edges UNC 74-73 in a wondrous ACC semifinal in Charlotte

Duke defeats North Carolina in the ACC Tournament

Check out photos from the third meeting of the season between the Duke Blue Devils and the UNC Tar Heels during the semifinal round of the ACC Tournament Friday night, March 15, 2019.
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Check out photos from the third meeting of the season between the Duke Blue Devils and the UNC Tar Heels during the semifinal round of the ACC Tournament Friday night, March 15, 2019.

Duke and North Carolina played an extraordinary ACC tournament semifinal Friday night in Charlotte.

College basketball won.

Technically, so did Duke, which got 31 points and 11 rebounds from an incredible Zion Williamson and edged UNC, 74-73, to move into the ACC final Saturday night against Florida State. No matter what happens there, though, it won’t top this one.

Let’s be honest: If you didn’t care who was victorious, this Duke-UNC game surpassed every expectation.

If you were among the 20,116 fans squeezed into the Spectrum Center, you considered yourself lucky. If you weren’t, you were thrashing around in alternate bouts of agony and ecstasy in front of your TV.

Duke’s Zion Williamson (1) celebrates after slamming in two during the second half of Duke’s 74-73 victory over UNC in the semifinals of the ACC Tournament in Charlotte on Friday. Ethan Hyman

Williamson followed his own miss with 31 seconds left to make the score 74-73, Duke. The last 30 seconds were then comprised of a series of tension-ridden misfires, so it fittingly was Zion who scored the game’s final points.

“The guy that’s been hurt came back and put on his Superman jersey again and was incredible,” UNC coach Roy Williams said of Williamson, who he recruited extremely hard but ultimately lost to the school 10 miles down the road. “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.”

UNC had its chances in the final three seconds — two of them, in fact. Coby White couldn’t get the shot UNC wanted and instead took an off-balance three-pointer with three seconds to go.

Unsurprisingly, it missed. The Tar Heels only went 4-for-27 from three-point range during the game. But freshman Nassir Little got his right hand on a potential tip-in with a half-second to go, only to miss that. Everyone finally exhaled, and Duke had won for the first time in three tries over the Tar Heels this season.

Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski called it “vintage ACC Duke-North Carolina.” Zion said, “the rivalry lived up to what I expected it to be.”

Comparable to 1994 Final Four

With Zion’s first — and likely last — appearance ever in a UNC-Duke contest ratcheting up the national volume for sports’ best rivalry even beyond its usual frenzied heights, this was one of the most eagerly anticipated college basketball games ever in Charlotte. The only college game I’ve ever seen in person in the Queen City that would definitely trump it was the Arkansas-Duke game at the 1994 Final Four in Charlotte, which had a national championship on the line and included President Bill Clinton in the crowd.

But man, this was electric. Although Duke and North Carolina were playing for the 251st time, this was only the second time they had ever met in the ACC tournament when both were ranked among the Top 5 teams in the AP poll.

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It could have been a Final Four game – certainly these two should be No. 1 seeds when the NCAA tournament bracket is set Sunday – but it had the advantage that the team that lost would still live to fight another day.

North Carolina’s Seventh Woods (0) consoles teammate Coby White (2) after White missed a three-point shot with three seconds to go Friday night in Duke ‘s 74-73 victory in an ACC tournament semifinal in Charlotte.. Robert Willett

So it was a little bit easier for both sides to sit back and enjoy the wondrous display of talent on both sides. And it really was something else — not decided until Zion hit that follow shot and UNC missed three shots in the last 30 seconds.

‘If you go 4-for-27....’

UNC had perhaps its best chance to retake the lead with 18 seconds to go when Cameron Johnson — who had already scored 23 points and was the Tar Heels’ most consistent offensive threat all night — got an open three-point look with his team down by a point.

“When the shot left my hand,” Johnson said, “I could have sworn it went down ... I could have bet a thousand dollars right there that shot was falling.”

But it didn’t, as UNC shot 14.8 percent from three-point range.

“If you go 4-for-27, guys, you deserve to be beat,” Roy Williams said. “I mean come on — let’s be honest.... You live by the jump shot, you die by the jump shot.”

Williamson, meanwhile, hit two three-pointers himself and mostly lived inside for Duke. He had several dunks, one of which was a windmill slam that awed his teammates and nearly levitated the Spectrum Center.

“The one he had to day where he took off outside the key on the fast break,” said fellow Duke freshman R.J. Barrett, “I give that one a 10. I didn’t know he was going to dunk that one.”

“Let’s not talk about rating dunks,” frowned Coach K, who was sharing a podium with Barrett. “Let’s talk about the game.”

Oh, c’mon, let’s talk about both, shall we? There’s room for it all.

“A 280-pound Vince Carter,” former Duke standout Grant Hill recently told me when I asked him about Zion. The fact that former Blue Devil star Hill had to reach into the UNC alumni yearbook for his description tells you that it’s hard to find any comparable player to the NBA’s all-but-certain No. 1 pick in June.

Duke had other standouts, too, of course, with Jordan Goldwire coming in to play 28 strong minutes off the bench. Barrett missed two free throws with 12 seconds to go, but he also posted 15 points, eight rebounds and seven assists and played all 40 minutes.

This game will likely be remembered in 20 years for one thing above all — it was the only time Zion played more than a minute in the UNC-Duke rivalry, and it was the only time he beat the Tar Heels.

If you were there, for better or for worse, you will never forget it.

Sports columnist Scott Fowler has written for the Charlotte Observer since 1994. He has authored or co-authored eight books, including four about the Carolina Panthers. In 2018, Fowler won the Thomas Wolfe award for outstanding newspaper writing. He also is the host of the Observer’s hit podcast “Carruth.”