basketball Edit

Duke wins slugfest with UNC

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Zion Williamson scored 31 points in Duke's win over UNC. (Associated Press)

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Duke and North Carolina always put on a show that annually reaffirms it as the greatest rivalry in college basketball, and perhaps sports in general.

And as many big battles as the two have provided fans of both teams, tonight’s ACC semifinal might rank as one of the best all-time.

It was a slugfest. The teams traded the lead eight times and found themselves locked up five times. And as one could only expect, the winner was determined on the very last play of the game, with Duke holding off the Tar Heels 74-73.

“They kept coming at us and we kept going at them all game long,” RJ Barrett said. “So, it was definitely just a great environment and such a fun game to be in.”

With the clock ticking away, Duke found itself leading 74-73 and a chance to extend the lead to two or three points on two Barrett free throw attempts with just 12 seconds remaining.

The Blue Devils’ struggles from the free throw line have been well-documented, but in the past, Barrett and his teammates have shown the ability to hit clutch, pressure shots.

Unfortunately for Duke, tonight was not one of them. When Barrett stepped to the line, he was 3-of-4 on the night. When he left it, he was 3-of-6 and instead of Duke closing out the final minutes with a chance to, at the very worst, force an overtime, it found itself having to defend a potential game-winning shot.

North Carolina’s Coby White has proven his ability to step up in big moments throughout the ACC schedule, and though he was 0-of-5 from 3-point range heading into the final possession, it was evident he would be a primary option to take the last shot.

“I was just trying to not let him get anything easy off,” Tre Jones, who was defending White, said. “I knew the way he was sizing me up, he was trying to get off a three. I felt like I took him off his rhythm a little bit and he was still able to step back. He threw up a shot, and it just hit off the backboard.

“I felt like I forced him into a pretty tough shot, although sometimes those are the ones that go in. I turned around and just had to wait to see where it was going.”

The shot missed, and UNC’s Cameron Johnson had one last tip attempt. That shot missed as well, and the buzzer sounded. Duke had won.

But the fight to get to that moment was a tough of one as we’ve seen all season.

Duke came out of the gates amped up, and behind a strong start from Javin DeLaurier and Zion Williamson, the Blue Devils had a quick 4-0 lead. UNC countered and quickly took an 8-4 lead.

From there, North Carolina began to take control and dictate the pace of the game. Duke fell right into the trap and played really unsettled basketball.

As a result, the Blue Devils found themselves down by as many as 13 points with 6:24 remaining in the first half. Duke looked completely out of sorts. The Blue Devils were running around aimlessly on defense, and UNC’s ball movement kept them off balance consistently.

Things certainly did not look good for Duke.

“I think we were just going too fast and were playing at their tempo,” Williamson said. “But I think we just needed to calm down and play at our speed and we started to execute more.”

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Antonio Vrankovic gave Duke a huge lift off the bench. (USA TODAY Sports)

The catalyst for Duke’s ability to calm down and regain its self control came from some unlikely sources - Jordan Goldwire and seldom used Antonio Vrankovic.

During UNC’s run, the Blue Devils had no answer for Cam Johnson, who was on fire out of the gates. Through the first nine minutes, Johnson had scored 14 points and was 5-of-6 from the field. He was hitting tough shots, but he was also getting open looks.

Duke had to find an answer for his productivity and it had to do it quickly.

Goldwire was that answer. He entered the game with 12:01 on the clock and from that point on in the first half, Johnson scored just two points, both free throws. He attempted just two more shots in the half.

“Cameron Johnson came out so hot and he’s such a terrific player,” Mike Krzyzewski said. “And I thought J-Gold did a great job on him.

“The thing that we found against good man-to-man offense, Jordan Goldwire has just been sensational on defense.”

Vrankovic also gave Duke a huge lift. With DeLaurier in early foul trouble and Marques Bolden on the bench injured, he was Duke’s last option for a post presence.

Krzyzewski did not believe Jack White had the size needed to counter UNC, so he rolled the dice with Vrankovic. And the senior responded in a huge way.

He gave Duke a physical presence, lifting the energy of the team almost instantly.

“[Vrankovic] didn’t even know he was going to get in tonight and Coach calls his name and he was ready,” Jones said. “That’s a guy that’s been ready all year. He’s stayed ready. One of our biggest games and he was able to produce a lot for us.”

His minutes and Goldwire’s presence truly provided Duke with the turning point to make it a game. Their efforts helped catapult Duke you outscore the Tar Heels 24-11 in the final six minutes.

For that, both Goldwire and Vrankovic started in the second half. Though Vrankovic’s minutes were reduced in the second half, he had done his job. Goldwire carried on with another big performance in the second half, playing 28 minutes by game’s end.

Ultimately, his defense was a game changer.

“They get down so fast and I thought a big key for us in defending them once he got in was how fast he got down the court,” Krzyzewski said. “He took away, he fanned out and they weren’t able to pass ahead. Then they had to run more half court offense and he was really a big part of it. It was the turning point of the game, really, his defense.”

While Goldwire and Vrankovic were leaving their marks on the game, Williamson, Barrett and Jones were trading haymakers with the Tar Heels.

Williamson once again electrified the crowd, scoring 31 points and pulling down 11 rebounds. Barrett flirted with another triple double with 15 points, eight rebounds and seven assists. Jones converted some huge buckets for Duke on his way to 11 points, four assists and four rebounds.

In what was the most anticipated game of the season for Duke - with Williamson’s return and a chance to play against arch rival North Carolina - it was the bench that stole the show despite the gaudy numbers from the superstars.

Duke now gets its chance at an ACC title, as they face off with Florida State on Saturday evening.