North Carolina beat Duke for a second time without Zion Williamson on Saturday — this time a 79-70 home win at Chapel Hill — to claim a share of the Atlantic Coast Conference regular-season title alongside Virginia.
The third-ranked Tar Heels (26-5, 16-2 ACC) hammered the fourth-ranked Blue Devils (26-5, 14-4) two and a half weeks ago when Williamson, a player of the year front-runner and projected NBA draft lottery pick, suffered a bizarre knee injury less than a minute into the game. This time Duke hung tougher with a more established identity without its star, but ultimately couldn’t outmatch its archrival in the regular-season finale for both teams.
The Blue Devils led 40-38 at halftime and fared much better in the paint than the Feb. 20 matchup (when Duke got outscored 62-28 in the lane) but North Carolina took advantage of another injury — this one causing Duke big man Marques Bolden to leave the game — to ultimately pull away in the second half.
Duke freshman standout R.J. Barrett, the team’s leading scorer, struggled with foul trouble and it threw off his usually dominant offensive attack;he still finished with26 pointsin the loss, though.Fellow freshman Cam Reddish carried the load early on, finishing with 23 points. The tandem combined to shoot 50 of the team’s total73 field goals. Freshman Coby White was UNC’s lightning rod in the second half to help turn the momentum, finishing with 21 points,while senior guard Kenny Williams (18 points) was the difference-maker for the Tar Heels in the first half. The ‘Heels’ Luke Maye, who had 30 points and 15 rebounds in UNC’s last Duke win, was cold in this contest, finishing with seven points on 3-for-13 shooting.
The victory likely catapults the Tar Heels ahead to the final No. 1 seed in the projected NCAA tournament field one week out from Selection Sunday because it gives them another quality win against a projected No. 1 seed in Duke. While it’s expected for the NCAA selection committee to be lenient in how it assesses the Blue Devils’ profile since they’re a much different team with Zion than without him (assuming Williamson is back in time for the NCAAs), it’s unlikely the committee treats UNC’s two wins over Duke as anything other than two résumé-boosting Quadrant 1 (top-30, top-75 road) wins.
The Blue Devils might slip at the No. 1 line as a result of this loss, meaning Virginia, a team they beat twice when healthy, and Gonzaga, one of only two teams to beat them when healthy, would move ahead as the top two No. 1 seeds following Saturday’s results — which also saw Tennessee fall to Auburn, thus moving the Volunteers back to the No. 2 line. Joining them there will be SEC challenger Kentucky, a team that beat North Carolina in a neutral court head-to-head game earlier this season.
But ultimately, UNC’s résumé speaks volumes not necessarily based on quantity so much as quality. Kentucky has more Quad 1 wins (11 to 9) and has a comparative non-conference strength of schedule (UK’s ranks 18 and UNC’s ranks 7). But the difference in this very close battle for a No. 1 seed is that the Tar Heels’ two Q1 wins over Duke mean more than UK’s win over North Carolina and Tennessee. More than that, Kentucky has lost a Quadrant 2 game, whereas UNC has only lost to Quad 1-ranked opponents.
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There’s plenty to play out in the ACC tournament, where Virginia will be the No. 1 seed, but as of right now, the league has three of the No. 1 seeds with Kentucky knocking on the door to leapfrog one of them here in the final seven days until Selection Sunday.