Zion Williamson, Duke Advance to ACC Title with Win vs UNC; RJ Barrett Drops 15

Paul KasabianSenior ContributorMarch 16, 2019

CHARLOTTE, NORTH CAROLINA - MARCH 15: Zion Williamson #1 of the Duke Blue Devils dunks the ball against the North Carolina Tar Heels during their game in the semifinals of the 2019 Men's ACC Basketball Tournament at Spectrum Center on March 15, 2019 in Charlotte, North Carolina.  (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

Zion Williamson posted 31 points on 13-of-19 shooting and 11 rebounds—including the game-winning bucket with 30.3 seconds remaining—as No. 5 Duke beat No. 3 North Carolina 74-73 in the Division I ACC men's basketball tournament semifinals Friday at the Spectrum Center in Charlotte, North Carolina.

ESPN @espn

Zion just willed this into the bucket 😳 https://t.co/G4FESRoKTU

UNC had numerous chances down the stretch to take the lead, starting with a Cameron Johnson three-point miss with 17 seconds remaining.

Duke forward RJ Barrett grabbed the rebound and was fouled, but he missed two free throws. The Tar Heels then charged down the court, but a long Coby White two-pointer and a Johnson tip attempt could not connect.

ACC Digital Network @theACCDN

Duke hangs on in a wild finish in Charlotte! #ACCTourney @NewYorkLife #GoodAtLife #ad https://t.co/ljj71ZYWV2

Johnson scored 23 points for the 27-6 Tar Heels, whose eight-game win streak ended.

Barrett added 15 points, eight rebounds and seven assists for 28-5 Duke.


Duke's Role Players Will Determine Tournament Ceiling

There really isn't much more that needs to be said about how unbelievable Williamson is on a game-by-game basis. The man is simply on the track to NBA stardom, and the mid-May NBA lottery selection show to determine the 2019 draft order may have more viewers than the playoff game that follows it.

Lost in the shuffle of a dominant Williamson performance and a clear Game of the Year candidate is the fact that some role players outside Duke's big three played some valuable minutes.

College basketball writer/editor Ray Holloman put it best in multiple tweetsone at the end of the first half, and the other postgame:

Ray Holloman @Ray_Holloman

It wasn't just a game of the star though. Zion Williamson absolutely carried Duke down to the final offensive rebound for the final points. But it was the game of the role player too. Duke doesn't win without Jordan Goldwire. Duke doesn't win without Antonio Vrankovic.

Ray Holloman @Ray_Holloman

That was the half of Antonio Vrankovic and Jordan Goldwire. In a half where DeLaurier got three fouls, Reddish had two points and O'Connell couldn't keep up defensively, it was the role players who steadied the ship.

First up is sophomore guard Jordan Goldwire, who has played 17 or more minutes just twice this year: One was in a 84-46 win over Eastern Michigan, and the other was a 113-49 blowout against Stetson.

Still, Goldwire never played more than 21 minutes in a game, but he somehow found himself on the court for 28 in Duke's most important game of the season as of now.

Goldwire didn't produce much on the stat sheet with four points, three boards and two steals, but his impact was far more valuable than what any box-score numbers can tell you.

Of note, he was at the right place at the right time when a loose ball off Barrett's hands fell into Goldwire's possession. The sophomore then calmly hit a layup with 1:46 left to give Duke a 72-71 lead.

On defense, Goldwire did an excellent job stopping the UNC attack after the Tar Heels scored 20 points before the under-12 first-half timeout.

Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski (via Blue Devil Nation) specifically shouted out Goldwire's defensive efforts:

Blue Devil Nation @BlueDevilNation

Coach K had high praise for Jordan Goldwire, saying he fanned out on defense allowing them to slow the UNC break. He mentioned @A11Vrankovic as well and spoke of how the bench helped give his team energy.

Senior center Antonio Vrankovic falls in the same boat as Goldwire. Like the sophomore, Vrankovic didn't contribute much in the box, with just two points, two assists and a block. But also like Goldwire, he came up big at an opportune time.

After UNC senior forward Luke Maye hit a jumper to put the Tar Heels up 36-30 with 4:27 left in the first half, Vrankovic went to work. Over the last 4:05 of the first half, the senior assisted on a Goldwire deuce, made a layup and assisted on a Williamson two. Thanks in part to Vrankovic's efforts, Duke erased the halftime gap and went into halftime tied at 44.

The Blue Devils eventually withstood a ferocious UNC offense to win by one in a game that had the intensity and drama of a Final Four matchup. And that wouldn't have happened without Goldwire and Vrankovic stepping up.

But Duke is going to need more from those two (and other Blue Devils not named Williamson, Barrett or Cam Reddish) to win it all. The best teams in the country have proven that Duke isn't invincible, even if Williamson seems like he is nearly every game. Gonzaga, which will be a No. 1 seed, beat Duke. Virginia, which will be a No. 1 seed, nearly beat Duke on the road. And UNC has done so twice (sans Williamson, admittedly) and almost did so a third time Friday.

Simply put, the Blue Devils are going to need those invaluable performances from role players to knock off the best teams in the country.


Duke-UNC Part IV Is Best-Case Title Game Scenario

Duke and UNC have made the NCAA tournament championship game a combined 18 times since 1975, when the NCAA finally allowed more than one team from each conference to make the tournament.

Somehow, the two archrivals have never faced off in the NCAA tournament, but that might change shortly. If so, fans could be in for one of the best title games in recent history.

The quality of play during the ACC men's semifinal was tremendous, especially considering that the game was played at a frenetic pace with both teams having won quarterfinal games one day before. Any exhaustion from the night before didn't show.

If you liked great defense, you got great defense (with a Williamson dunk as a cherry on top):

ACC Digital Network @theACCDN

AIR ZION IS CLEARED FOR TAKEOFF! ✈️ #HereComesDuke #MustSeeACC #ACCTourney (@DukeMBB, @ZionW32) @NewYorkLife #GoodAtLife #ad https://t.co/FaZv7gbuVM

If you liked classic, old-school post play, you got classic, old-school post play:

Adam Rowe @AdamRoweTDD

Per @ADavidHaleJoint, Duke scored 50 points in the paint tonight. That's the most UNC has allowed in a game in 8 years. Here's Zion Williamson's shot chart tonight. https://t.co/dA9vwCCv2V

If you liked guys hustling down the court and picking up their teammates at a breakneck pace, that was also available:

NCAA March Madness @marchmadness

Nassir Little cleans up the mess! 💪 @UNC_Basketball https://t.co/Je1KHLBuqn

There's a lot more to love than what those three clips show. Fans saw scorching-hot shooting from Johnson, clutch performances from bench players and sharp passing from UNC freshman guard Coby White.

Furthermore, six players who Jonathan Wasserman of Bleacher Report currently projects to go in the first round of this summer's NBA draft were on the court together Friday, with four of them picked to land in the lottery.

The fact that Duke and UNC are rivals isn't the primary reason why these two teams create the best possible national championship theater. It really doesn't matter. You can replace the UNC and Duke names with any two other schools and the sentiment about these two groups of players would remain the same.

The two sides just feed off each other so well that it creates the best entertainment college basketball can offer. The talent is tremendous, the pace is great, and the efforts exuded on both ends are so remarkable that it's almost exhausting to watch sitting at home. Fans would be very lucky to see Duke and UNC in the championship. The key is whether they'll be placed on opposite sides of the bracket.


What's Next?

Duke will face Florida State for the ACC title Saturday at 8:30 p.m. ET.

UNC will discover its NCAA tournament placement Sunday during the NCAA Basketball Championship Selection Show, which begins at 6 p.m. ET on CBS.


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