DURHAM — North Carolina’s gameplan coming into Wednesday’s showdown against Duke at Cameron Indoor Stadium was to try and deny the ball from Blue Devils star Zion Williamson.
Not even the Tar Heels could have imagined how successful they would be at accomplishing that goal.
Of course, it helped that Williamson suffered a knee injury 34 seconds into the game and never returned. Without the freshman sensation to worry about, UNC was able to dominate on both ends of the floor, getting a combined 56 points from seniors Luke Maye and Cameron Johnson on the way to an 88-72 victory.
The win was the Tar Heels’ eighth against Duke when their rival was ranked No. 1 in the nation and it kept them undefeated on the road in ACC competition this season while creating a three-way tie between themselves, the Blue Devils and Virginia atop the conference standings.
“I hate Zion went down. I hope he’s okay,” said UNC point guard Seventh Woods, who aided his team’s cause with a strong performance off the bench. “But we competed and we pulled it out. A win is a win anywhere. I don’t think many teams could come in here to Cameron and win like we did.”
The eighth-ranked Tar Heels played well, shooting 50.7 from the floor, outrebounding Duke 46-41, forcing 20 turnovers and limiting the Blue Devils to just 8 of 39 shooting from 3-point range.
Still, their cause was aided greatly by the absence of the presumptive national player of the year — a 6-foot-7, 285-pound force of nature who came into the game averaging 22.4 points and 9.2 rebounds per game while shooting nearly 70 percent from the floor.
Williamson suffered what coach Mike Krzyzewski described as “a mild sprain” to his right knee when his foot slipped from under him and out of his shoe while making a move in the lane on the opening possession. He limped off the court and was immediately taken to the locker room.
His sudden departure took the life out of the once-festive crowd, which included such luminaries as former President Barack Obama, baseball Hall of Famer Ken Griffey Jr. and Oscar-nominated director Spike Lee. It had an even more tangible impact on Williamson’s stunned teammates.
UNC, on the other hand, became emboldened by the unexpected turn of events. That, said guard Kenny Williams, is a testament to his team’s maturity.
While Duke’s roster is dominated by talented freshmen still in their teens, the Tar Heels feature two seniors and a graduate student in the starting lineup with a pair of juniors off the bench.
“It definitely was a win for the old school,” Williams said. “Our guys played with so much poise. We had some mishaps, but I think overall we played with a lot of poise.”
With Williamson not there to clog up the lane or block shots, the Tar Heels (21-5, 11-2 ACC) wasted little time attacking the now unguarded rim and Williamson’s replacement Jack White. They jumped out to a quick 21-9 lead with Maye and Johnson responsible for 16 of their team’s points.
Maye finished with 30 points and 15 rebounds on 14 of 24 shooting. Johnson was 11 of 17 on his way to 26 points, seven rebounds and four assists. Junior big man Garrison Brooks was also effective inside while adding 14 points and eight rebounds in 30 minutes as UNC outscored Duke by a whopping 62-28 margin in the paint.
“Everybody be honest,” Tar Heels coach Roy Williams said. “When the big guy went down, obviously that changes the whole game.”
And yet, UNC still had to recognize the situation and find a way to take advantage of it, especially since it shot a dismal 2 of 20 from 3-point range.
“I know I had a couple of tough ones that I feel like I can usually hit, but after a few possessions you could see they were pushing up on us on the 3-point line,” said Johnson, who missed all four of his long-range attempts after going 7 for 10 in Saturday’s win at Wake Forest. “So we just tried to take advantage of that, getting in the lane because they get so spread out. Getting easy baskets was big for us.”
One of the easiest — and perhaps the game’s most pivotal basket — came just before the halftime buzzer.
It happened at the end of a sequence that started with Johnson missing a dunk. Duke’s Cam Reddish got the rebound, but in his haste to push the ball upcourt, threw a pass that was intercepted by Woods near midcourt with three seconds left.
Instead of firing up a desperation shot, Woods has the presence of mind to hurry the ball upcourt, where he fed Brooks for the layup that helped extend a lead that had shrunk to just five moments earlier to a more comfortable 42-32 cushion.
Building on the momentum, the Tar Heels opened the second half on a 17-5 run that opened up a 22-point advantage at 59-37.
It was a similar lead to the one Louisville built on Duke last week before the Blue Devils came roaring from behind. Johnson admitted that his mind briefly flashed to that game. It was a memory he said helped UNC avoid a similar fate.
Duke (23-3, 11-2) never got back to within single digits.
“In a game like this you can’t really exhale,” Johnson said. “It was definitely big for us for him to go out of the game early. But looking back now, I don’t think we exhaled at all. It was ‘we’ve got to keep pushing, we’ve got to keep pushing.’
“In a game like this anything can happen. Anyone can step up, make a lot of shots and turn the tide. So when (Williamson went out), we had to keep going after them.”