CHARLOTTE — Roy Williams didn’t have to work hard to find the silver lining to Friday’s ACC Tournament semifinal loss to Duke.
Or the motivation for his North Carolina basketball team moving forward into the upcoming NCAA Tournament.
“I will tell you this: We have been to several Final Fours, several, and we have (rarely) won (an ACC) tournament championship,” the Hall of Fame coach said after his Tar Heels came up short in an intense, back-and-forth 74-73 semifinal loss to Duke at Spectrum Center.
“So our season’s not over. We’ve just got to regroup, play better and understand that we didn’t play well enough to win today.”
In fact, losing in the conference semifinals could turn out to be a good omen for UNC. The Tar Heels went out in the same round each of the three times they went on to win the national title in the Williams era — in 2005, ‘09 and ‘17.
But while the players will certainly benefit from the extra day of rest they’ll get while the Blue Devils and Florida State battle through their third game in as many days in Saturday’s final, it was little consolation to Cam Johnson and his teammates after failing to win for the third time in three meetings this season to their neighboring rival.
“There’s no relief when you lose a game,” said Johnson, who led UNC with 23 points. “This was one we wanted to win. This is one we thought we should win. This is one we could have won.”
One reason they didn’t win was the performance of Duke star Zion Williamson. The ACC’s Player and Rookie of the Year, who missed all but 34 seconds of the two regular season meetings between the teams, scored 31 points and pulled down 11 rebounds — including a tip-in of his own miss that turned out to be the decisive basket with 31.1 seconds remaining.
It was an effort in which, according to Williams, the talented freshman did everything but put on a red cape and leap a tall building in a single bound.
“The guy that’s been hurt came back, put on his Superman jersey again and was incredible,” Williams said. “It’s such a blend of strength and power and quickness that we couldn’t stop him from getting the basketball inside and going to the basket.”
UNC tried everything it could to defend Williamson, alternating between big man Garrison Brooks and the smaller, more athletic Nassir Little with Luke Maye helping out whenever possible.
But Williamson still managed to make 13 of his 19 field goal attempts, including 2 for 3 from beyond the 3-point arc.
And yet, as dominant as he was, the Tar Heels still had the ball in their hands on the game’s final possession with a chance to win.
Actually, they had multiple shots at providing a happy ending and completing the season hat trick during the final 18 seconds.
The first chance ended in a missed 3-pointer from the top of the circle by Johnson on a play that was originally designed to feed Coby White on a backdoor cut that was defended well by the Blue Devils’ Tre Jones.
“They covered it it pretty well,” Johnson said. “I ended up getting the space I wanted and when the shot left my hand, I would have bet a thousand dollars that the shot was falling, but it just didn’t. Sometimes that happens.”
The same thing happened to White moments later, after Duke’s R.J. Barrett missed two free throws to keep UNC within one with 12.4 seconds left.
Again, Duke’s defense forced the Tar Heels into improvising when the designed play broke down. Instead of executing the same pick-and-pop play that led to Maye hitting the 3-pointer that forced overtime in a win against Miami on Jan. 19, White was forced to shoot the ball himself.
It rimmed out, as did a rebound attempt by Little as the buzzer sounded.
“Time wasn’t on our side and I had to go up with a shot,” the freshman point guard said. “It went in and out. I thought it was going in, but that’s what happened with a lot of my shots tonight.”
White finished with 11 points, but was 4 of 14 from the floor while missing all six of his 3-point attempts. Maye, who posted his 14th double-double of the season with 14 points and 13 rebounds, missed all three of his long-range attempts while Kenny Williams was 1 for 6.
As a team, the Tar Heels made just four of 27 3-pointers.
“If you go 4 for 27, you deserve to get beat,” Roy Williams. “You should never just rely on jump shots. I’ve never seen a team that relies on jump shots win everything.
“When they’re pressuring you, you’ve got to attack and we didn’t attack. We took the easy way out and took quick jump shots and we didn’t shoot the ball worth a darn. With our team, if we don’t shoot it well, it makes it really difficult for us.”