CHAPEL HILL — Duke’s fantastic freshman class has been as good as advertised this season. But for the second time in 2½ weeks, North Carolina’s trio of seniors was even better on Saturday.
Sparked by upperclassmen Kenny Williams, Cameron Johnson and Luke Maye, the Tar Heels took over in the second half and pulled away for a 79-70 Senior Night victory against their injury-depleted rival.
Williams scored a season high 18 points and Johnson added 14 while Maye contributed 16 rebounds and seven assists to a victory that gave UNC a sweep of its regular season series with the Blue Devils.
It also earned the Tar Heels a share of their 32nd ACC regular season title, an accomplishment they celebrated by cutting down the Smith Center nets in an emotional postgame ceremony.
“It’s Senior Night, so it’s the most appropriate thing that could happen,” said Williams, who made four of his seven 3-point attempts while personally getting Duke star R.J. Barrett into foul trouble by drawing three charges. “That was a happy three seniors to step up and start the second half the way we did.”
With their team trailing by two after an opening 20 minutes that featured five lead changes and five ties, Williams, Johnson and Maye combined to score their team’s first 12 points out of the break to turn that slim deficit into a 50-44 lead.
They then turned things over to their own talented rookie, point guard Coby White, to take them the rest of the way home.
White hit three of his four 3-pointers in the second half on his way to a team-leading 21 points while also playing 36 minutes without committing a turnover. By contrast, he had six in UNC’s win at Cameron Indoor Stadium on Feb. 20.
In the process, White earned the praise of both his teammates and Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski — who knows a little something about talented freshmen.
“He’s one of the best players in the league,” Krzyzewski said of the Tar Heels’ point guard. “He’s going to be an NBA player. He’s got all those things and he’s got the support. It’s cool when a freshman gets support from the seniors.”
White’s final 3-pointer was a dagger from the top of the circle that punctuated an 11-0 run and extended UNC’s lead to 75-60 with 6:44 to play.
But it was also the last field goal his team would make.
The Tar Heels (26-5, 16-2 ACC) left the door open by making just four free throws the rest of the way. Duke was unable to take advantage, though, thanks to its own cold shooting. The Blue Devils (26-5, 14-4) made just one of their final 10 field goal attempts and were a frosty 23.1 percent from the floor in the second half.
“In the back of our heads, we knew they weren’t going to give up,” White said, referencing Duke’s 23-point comeback in the final nine minutes to beat Louisville earlier this season. “We just had to stay focused and locked in and keep getting stops on the defensive end, which we did.”
Freshman stars Barrett (26 points, 12 rebounds) and Cam Reddish (23 points) did their best to carry Duke. But in the end the two first-year players were trumped by a Tar Heels team led by three seasoned veterans.
As was the case in the earlier meeting between the teams, in which Duke star Zion Williamson was injured when his shoe exploded just 34 seconds into the game, there was something of an asterisk attached to UNC’s victory.
Not only did Williamson not play again, his fifth straight game on the sidelines, but another starter also went down early with an injury. The Blue Devils lost junior big man Marques Bolden after just three minutes when he hurt his left knee while blocking a shot by UNC’s Garrison Brooks.
Although his rebounding and interior defense were missed, Tar Heels coach Roy Williams refused to let that or Williamson’s absence detract from what his team accomplished both against its rival and the rest of the ACC over the course of a long season.
“Let’s be honest, whether it’s an asterisk or not, frankly I don’t care,” Roy Williams said.
Neither does senior Kenny Williams, who is as unconcerned over the possibility of having to play the Blue Devils again — something that’s likely to happen in the ACC semifinals next Friday — as he is over the prospect of Williamson actually seeing action in that game.
“We play the cards we’re dealt,” he said. “If we get the again, we get them again. If Zion plays, Zion plays. All I know is that regardless of what people say, there won’t be an asterisk on these two games or on our banner that says we’re ACC champions. All we can do is control what we can control and I think we’ve done that.”