- With or without Zion Williamson, Luke Maye and North Carolina made a statement and got themselves back into the ACC title race with their surprisingly dominant win at Cameron Indoor.
Once Zion Williamson's shoe exploded, the outcome of the Duke-UNC game became a secondary headline. But for the other 39 minutes and 30 seconds, Luke Maye and North Carolina dominated Duke 88–72 in one of the more lopsided games in the rivalry in recent years.
UNC won the way it wasn't supposed to win, and it did it convincingly. During a year in which Roy Williams has expertly deployed a team of excellent three-point shooters, the Tar Heels went 2 for 20 from beyond the arc. Top recruit Coby White had an awful game (3 of 14, nine points), and there was no breakthrough for Nassir Little. Instead, the Heels completely dominated the paint with Luke Maye and Cameron Johnson from the second Zion exited. Duke's R.J. Barrett and Cam Reddish scored 33 and 27 points, respectively, but North Carolina shut down everyone else on the roster. Duke also went 8 for 39 from three, which was downright painful to watch. It was a comprehensive, if not very efficient, performance on both ends of the floor. UNC also had five more rebounds and forced 20 Duke turnovers.
With his 30-point, 15 rebound performance, Luke Maye continues to build a legendary UNC career. He's become UNC's version of Perry Ellis at Kansas, the always-present big man who can shoot and defines a whole era for a program. Remember, Maye's freshman year was in 2016, when North Carolina lost to Villanova in the national championship game. When Zion went out, it quickly became clear that Marques Bolden and Javin DeLaurier could not stop Luke Maye whatsoever. After almost four years, it was inevitable that Luke Maye would do Luke Maye things after the injury, and he delivered once again.
Meanwhile, his teammate Cameron Johnson finally gave UNC fans a signature game. Johnson's road to Tar Heel glory is the opposite of Maye's. He started at Pitt back in 2014–15, missed most of the season with a medical redshirt due to an arm injury, then worked like crazy to graduate from Pitt in three years (with a 3.9 GPA) so that he could escape the Kevin Stallings era. Pitt then tried to block Johnson's transfer to another ACC school, before relenting. Johnson had a good first year as a grad transfer, but he's really broken out for UNC this season.
It's easy to discount this game after Zion's shocking injury, but in the standings, a win is a win. In terms of bragging rights, North Carolina has not swept Duke in the season series since 2009, and Tar Heel fans will likely not care about Nike's poor shoe construction if their team can secure a win at home. The last game won by 16 points in this rivalry came way back in 2013, when Duke won 69–53 in Chapel Hill. UNC is now tied atop the ACC with Virginia and Duke in the race for the regular season title, and will get to face Duke in the Dean Dome. When they entered the game as nine-point underdogs, the Tar Heels' chances of getting a No. 1 or No. 2 seed in the conference tournament weren't great. Overtaking Duke or Virginia in the ACC seemed downright unlikely, but now, the door is now officially open. After losing its only game against the Cavaliers this year, however, UNC will still need Virginia to lose a game or two even if it runs the table from here.
In addition to helping out Roy Williams's team in the eyes of the NCAA tournament selection committee, the win will be a huge morale boost for UNC, which was stung by that 69–61 home loss to Virginia on Feb. 11. Duke without Zion is still a top-10 team in the country, one with multiple other NBA lottery picks. The last time Williamson missed significant time, Duke picked up a difficult road win at current No. 16 Florida State. Duke played far worse Wednesday night, but North Carolina's ability to adapt to a poor shooting night was impressive. The Tar Heels have come back from setbacks repeatedly this year, losing to Texas and Michigan, then beating Gonzaga. They lost to Kentucky and were blown out by Louisville, but responded by winning seven straight. North Carolina is not the most talented team in the country, but its ability to rebound and refocus should pay huge dividends down the road.
UNC's statement win does not quite put it into the realm of favorites to win the national title, but counting out Roy Williams and the Tar Heels would be a mistake.