Duke vs UNC Live: The third time Duke and North Carolina have faced off this season, but things could be drastically different in Round 3, all thanks to one player. College basketball’s most intense rivalry gets an ACC tournament re-installment for the third consecutive year, as No. 2 seed North Carolina takes on No. 3 Duke in the second semifinal on Friday night.
Zion Williamson will return for just his second game after a blown-out shoe against UNC on Feb. 21 caused him to miss five games. Without Zion in Duke’s lineup, UNC swept the Blue Devils during the regular season, outscoring the them by 25 points.
ACC Tournament 2-seed UNC (27-5) made easy work of Louisville in its first game of the tournament on Thursday, defeating the Cardinals 83-70. Luke Maye led all scorers with 19 points while Coby White chipped in 17. With the win, the Tar Heels pushed their win streak to eight games.
Williamson was impeccable in his return to the floor for Duke (27-5) against Syracuse on Thursday. The freshman was a perfect 13 of 13 from the floor for 29 points with 14 rebounds, five steals and countless highlight dunks, leading the Blue Devils to an 84-72 win. Even with his return, though, Duke likely won’t be at full strength: Marques Bolden is expected to miss his second game with an injury suffered in the regular season finale at UNC.
North Carolina leads the all-time series, 139-111. The two teams have met as ranked teams a total of 71 times, with the Tar Heels only holding a three-game advantage over Duke (37-34). Over the last 181 games, UNC has outscored the Blue Devils by just 38 points (13,748-13,701), a difference of 0.26 points per game.
UNC won the first two meetings against their heated in-state rivals this year, but those matchups lacked a certain tank with pogo-sticks for legs.
Zion Williamson–you may have heard of him–tore through his shoe and sprained his right knee within the first 30 seconds of the first Duke-UNC matchup and ultimately missed six games. Duke went just 3-3 in those contests, losing twice to Carolina, once to Virginia Tech and narrowly escaping a game at home against a Wake Forest team they had beaten by 22 earlier in the year.
On the year, Duke has an offensive efficiency (points per 100 possessions) of 113.8 and a defensive efficiency of 91.5. In those six games without Zion, those numbers dropped to 101.1 and 98.6, respectively.
So, yeah, it turns out the Blue Devils missed one of the most dominant college basketball players of the last decade.
He finished with one of the most absurd stat lines of the season, even when you don’t account for the fact he hadn’t played an actual game in nearly a month: 13-of-13 from the field (and 2-of-9 from the free-throw line), 29 points, 14 rebounds (seven offensive), two assists, five steals and one block.
“I’ve been in this game over 50 years, I’ve seen a lot of great players. I’m not going to say he’s better than them, but he’s a different player. There’s no one really like him,” Syracuse head coach Jim Boeheim said after the game.
All that said, UNC won those first two games for a reason. Zion’s absence obviously played a part, but the Heels have also been playing lights out during the last month. Since a 69-61 loss to Virginia on February 11, Carolina has won eight straight. They were pushed to the wire at Clemson, but every other one of those wins has been by at least eight points, and the average margin of victory during that stretch has been 14.63.
That includes a 13-point win over Louisville–the only other team besides Virginia to beat the Heels in ACC play–in the quarterfinals. Coby White and Luke Maye each chipped in 19 points in that one, while Cam Johnson and Garrison Brooks each tallied double-figures.
“They are as fast as any team I’ve coached against,” Louisville head coach Chris Mack said about UNC. “And you talk about it, you talk about it, but talking doesn’t prepare you sometimes. And you give those guys credit, they were shot out of a cannon, that ball was up the floor and in such a hurry and got to the rim.”
There’s a very real chance that this matchup could be for a No. 1 seed. UNC may still get one if they lose, while the Blue Devils–currently projected as a 2–need to win to have a shot of that top line.
For what it’s worth, the last single-season three-game sweep in this rivalry came in 2002, with Duke easily winning all three.