That was weird. There were a few ideas of words that would go on to describe this game, but “weird” was not one. North Carolina did not let up all night as they cruised to an 88-72 victory in Cameron Indoor Stadium.
The most talked about event of the night was Zion Willliamson’s premature exit from the game following a knee injury on the first possession of the game. As important of a role that injury played and as fascinating the shoe malfunction was, I am not so quick to cast this game as a complete disappointment. The hype of Zion’s athleticism is certainly the most entertaining in sports at the moment, but that would too quickly separate the tradition and the quality in this rivalry, which on paper is unimaginably tight.
But now, the game.
Roy Williams’ bunch exploded out of the gate and established a presence down low, specifically with Luke Maye, who was into double-digits within about 10 minutes. That trend would continue throughout the first half.
Neither team could find any success shooting on the perimeter. Duke, who is shooting only .313 from beyond the arc this season, were able to knock down a handful of shots, but could not get the rhythm that scorers like Cam Reddish and RJ Barrett need.
Momentum seemed to be the name of the game. Following the loss of Williamson, the Cameron Crazies continued to bring enthusiasm, but Duke couldn’t capitalize with it. A moment that seemed to encompass this was following a Blue Devils basket, Tre Jones forced a steal from Coby White, but White hustled back and swatted Jones transition attempt into the seats.
Like I mentioned earlier, the Luke Maye and Cam Johnson show took full effect. Duke did not seem to have an answer for the two seniors, who combined for 44 points and 23 rebounds. Having to go to the bench to find some size down low, the Blue Devils went with Javin DeLaurier, but he accumulated three fouls in the first half. To offer some context to this all, the Tar Heels had 34 points in the paint in the first half, while Duke had 32 points in total.
The second half was more of the same. North Carolina had a 10-point lead going into the half, but within the first four minutes that lead had doubled to 20.
It would not get much worse than that. Per the first 20 minutes struggles, Coach K was unable to get any consistency from his young team. Every time they would have success on their end, they would give up an easy basket down low to the Tar Heels. Likewise, if they could get a stop, no one besides RJ Barrett or Cam Reddish could get a bucket. The dynamic duo tried their hardest to replace Zion and accounted for 83% of Duke’s points.
The lowest the deficit reached was 13 points at around the three minutes to go mark and some Cameron faithful held out for a Louisville-esque comeback, like two weeks ago, to no avail.
Looking forward, the ACC will have quite the run into the post season. Virginia, Duke, and North Carolina sit atop the standings at 11-2 in conference play.
The road in will be increasingly difficult for the Blue Devils, especially depending on the extent of Williamson’s injury. They have to travel to the Carrier Dome to take on a Syracuse team that already beat them earlier this season. Two ranked matchups remain, a trip to Virginia Tech and the highly anticipated rematch against North Carolina.
Luke Maye and company will host #16 Florida St. before welcoming Syracuse within the next week. They will be looking to have much of tonight repeated when Duke rolls into the Dean Dome in two weeks time.