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Duke outlasts North Carolina in ACC tournament thriller

Zion Williamson

Duke’s Zion Williamson (1) drives to the basket against North Carolina during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament in Charlotte, N.C., Friday, March 15, 2019. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton)


In his first -- and only? -- game that he will play against North Carolina, Zion Williamson certainly made his presence known.

The 6-foot-7 freshman phenom tipped in his own miss with 30 seconds left, giving him 31 points and 11 boards and Duke a 74-73 lead, that turned out to be the final points of the game as the Blue Devils knocked off the Tar Heels to advance to the ACC tournament title game.

And boy, what a difference Zion makes.

This was the third time that the Blue Devils and the Tar Heels played this season, but the first time all year that they did so with Williamson healthy. In the first matchup, you might have heard, a busted shoe 30 seconds into the first half ended Williamson’s regular season, which in turn meant that he was not available for the annual regular season finale.

Duke, you can imagine, lost both of those games.

On Friday night with the big fella back on the floor, it was a different story, as he willed the Blue Devils back from a 12 point first half deficit. Williamson finished 13-for-19 from the floor, hitting a pair of threes and grabbing three offensive rebounds, despite a slow start to the evening. And on a night where R.J. Barrett and Cam Reddish combined for 21 points on 8-for-22 shooting to go along with eight turnovers, it’s something that the Blue Devils desperately needed.

And here’s why it matters: Because Duke, with a win over Florida State in the ACC tournament title game, could very well end up getting one a No. 1 seed.

For my money, Virginia has a No. 1 seed locked up. I think that Gonzaga should have a No. 1 seed locked up, too. The question, then, becomes whether or not one can be given to Duke after they lost three games with Zion Williamson, and if North Carolina should get the no. 1 seed over them; after all, they have beaten Duke twice, and it would not be fair to punish the Tar Heels for the fact that Williamson was not on the floor.

But that’s neither here nor there.

Because if there was anything that was apparent on Friday night in Charlotte, it’s that Duke and Carolina both are good enough to be No. 1 seeds.

My take on Duke is well known by now. I think that the Blue Devils are the best team in college basketball with Zion Williamson playing like this. Coming from behind to beat this North Carolina team is not insignificant, especially when it happened on a night where Coach K didn’t get much from Barrett and Reddish.

But the ceiling for North Carolina is massive, and I think this group is playing together as well as they have all season long. I don’t know if it will end up this way when the seeding come out, but I think there is a very real chance that three of the four best teams in the country reside in the ACC.

And we should all hope that, at some point in the next three and a half weeks, we get Round 4 of Duke vs. UNC.