There’s always a lot of talk about freshmen in this sport. This year there’s one in particular who was wearing street clothes on Duke’s bench Saturday night. Zion Williamson was the reason celebrities and former President Barack Obama flocked to Durham three weeks ago to sit courtside for this season’s first edition of Duke-North Carolina. Part II of this top-five showdown didn’t enjoy the same kind of pregame hype, but another freshman reminded us that there are more young phenoms to keep an eye on as we get deeper into March.
Coby White led North Carolina to a 79–70 win over Duke by scoring a team-high 21 points, 14 of which came in the second half. He’s been on a hot streak lately, averaging 18.0 points per ACC game, including 34 against Syracuse and 28 at Clemson last week.
The majority of the game was a back-and-forth affair, with the pace close to putting a crick in your neck. Duke led 40–38 at halftime. Midway through the second, White went off and scored 12 points, including three three-pointers over a four-minute span, to give UNC a 70–60 lead. North Carolina grew hot on the perimeter, pushed the pace and then with 6:47 to play went up 75–60 after Kenny Williams, who finished with 18 points, hit another three (UNC was 12-of-31 on the night).
But if White’s second-half dominance got UNC to this point, it was Roy Williams’s experienced seniors—on Senior Night—who took control and preserved the Duke sweep down the stretch. The Blue Devils nearly came back with a late 10–0 run highlighted by a R.J. Barrett three that pulled them within five, 75–70. On the next Duke possession, Luke Maye blocked Barrett as he drove for a layup. And a minute later, Williams came up huge blocking Barrett again on a would-have-been-clutch jumper. North Carolina finished the game off with a pair of free throws.
“That’s something I’ll hold on to for the rest of my life,” Williams said of beating Duke both times this year. “They gave us a fight.”
With the victory, North Carolina gets to share the regular-season ACC title with Virginia, which beat Louisville earlier in the day. UVA will be the No. 1 overall seed in the ACC tournament—and likely in the NCAA tournament, too. UNC and Duke will get double byes in next week’s conference tournament, with a potential semifinal matchup on Friday night waiting if they both win their first game in Charlotte.
Duke, for its part, showed it could hang with anyone while shorthanded. Williamson was nursing a grade 1 right knee sprain that he suffered a minute into the Feb. 20 matchup. And to make things more difficult, Duke lost starting center Marques Bolden two-and-a-half minutes into the game when he was knocked out with a knee injury of his own. The early report out of Chapel Hill was a sprained MCL.
Coach Mike Krzyzewski said Williamson is expected to be back for the ACC tournament next week, but now the concern is Bolden. Javin DeLaurier came in for relief, but Duke lacked the ideal size matchup to ultimately hang with UNC. Offensively, though, Duke looked more prepared to rely on its other freshmen stars than it had in the 88–72 loss to the Tar Heels in Durham a few weeks ago. Barrett and Cam Reddish combined for 49 points, but they’ll need more support as they get deeper into March—no other Blue Devil reached double digits. And even though Barrett scored 26 points, he was 10-of-27 from the floor and was outhustled by Williams all night.
Saturday’s matchup was incredibly entertaining, despite Williamson’s absence. He’ll be back soon, but there are other stars to watch, too, as more teams get hot at the right time.