DURHAM - Before the part of the day where Wednesday night turns into Thursday morning this week, if you had told anyone that Cameron Johnson had failed to drill a three, that Kenny Williams had failed to make a three, and that Luke Maye and Coby White would combine for just two triples, anyone would’ve expected the Tar Heels to be run out of the gym.
If you had told that person that UNC would only win the rebounding margin by five, that Coby White would have six turnovers on just three assists while shooting 3-14 from the field, while only getting seven points from their bench, anyone would expect the Tar Heels to have their 11-mile bus ride back home seem just a little bit longer following a loss to the No. 1 team in the country.
Of course, all of those stats happened, and the Tar Heels (21-5, 11-2 ACC) still won by 16 points, triumphing 88-72 over the Blue Devils (23-3, 11-2) on Wednesday night in Cameron Indoor Stadium. The win being powered by a combined 56 from seniors Luke Maye and Cameron Johnson, and a whopping 62 points in the paint in a wire-to-wire victory.
“We can win in so many different ways,” senior guard Kenny Williams said. “We can win by hitting 16 threes and we can win by hitting two. And we've shown that multiple times this season.”
Before the game, the talk was of how UNC and Duke mirrored their historical strengths. Duke, the long time purveyor of guards that could drill three-pointers, had a trio of freshmen forwards that were at their best driving to the paint and getting to the basket. UNC, long known for their back-to-basket forwards, instead had the superior three point shooting.
But as the game moved forward, the script flipped back to the historical norms. It was UNC, not Duke, getting easy baskets at the rim through smart cuts, slashing drives, and easy rebound putbacks, while shooting a 2-20 clip from three.
Luke Maye lead the way with 30 points and 15 rebounds, getting, at times, anything he wanted on post-ups and baseline J’s. Meanwhile, Duke was the team heading back to their usual long-range ways, jacking up 39 threes while only making eight.
“A lot of people thought I didn’t show up in big time games, and I’m just going to try to prove them wrong,” Maye said. “People didn’t think I could play here, didn’t think I could start here, didn’t think I could be the impact player I am, and I just think I continue to prove people wrong each night.”
Cameron Johnson, meanwhile, got his 26 points off of zero threes, but a whole lot of drives the basket, cuts into the lane, and pull up jumpers off the dribble, an added dimension of his game that doesn’t always have to show up, but that he’s glad is there when it’s needed.
“You've got to be a basketball player,” Johnson said. “The threes weren't falling, they were trying to take it away. So it was just about doing other things. You've got to contribute somehow.”
In retrospect, however, the game was probably over after just 34 seconds.
That’s the amount of time Zion Williamson spent checked in for the Duke Blue Devils, during which his team won the tip, he handled the ball at the top of key, went to drive, had his shoe literally explode on the court, and ended up clutching his left leg on the ground which Cameron Johnson sprinted up court to score the first two points of the game on the steal.
Williamson left the game, then eventually left the bench, never to return.
“Everybody be honest,” Roy Williams said. “When the big fella goes out of the game, it chances a lot of stuff for them.”
Roy is right, of course. Losing a player such as Zion hurt Duke and let UNC focus in on the Blue Devils other freshmen, RJ Barrett, Cam Reddish and Tre Jones. And in Barrett and Reddish’s case, they still got theirs, with Barrett boasting a stupidly good 33 point and 13 rebound stat line, with Reddish adding 27 points of his own.
But Jones never got going, shooting 1-11 from the field, and UNC’s defense forced the Blue Devils to play hero ball most of the way, only having nine assists to 20 turnovers (10 off steals) at the end of the night.
And defensively, Duke was at a loss without Zion, constantly missing assignments in the paint and switching into poor matchups for UNC to exploit. They had some success with a full court press late in the game, and Tre Jones did an excellent job neutralizing Coby White, but it was too little, too late, as Duke never got within 10 points after the 18:10 mark in the second half.
So, despite the threes not falling, despite Reddish and Barrett going off, despite not dominating the boards, UNC was the one jumping around in their locker room when the final buzzer sounded, as they usually do after a big win. But doing it in Cameron? Kenny Williams put it best:
“In here, it's awesome,” he said. “Everything in here feels a little bit better than it would in a regular game.”