A chance to do something special

Back and forth they went.

There were comebacks and blown leads.

There were and-1’s (the completed kind and the missed free throw kind).

There were points in transition and points in half court sets.

There was a little bit of everything in No. 3 UNC’s third meeting of the season against No. 5 Duke.

In the end, Coby White’s off-balance shot bounced off the rim, Nassir Little’s tip was wide and Cameron Johnson ran out of time on the second rebound.

And, just like that, Duke (28-5, 14-4) avenged its two regular season losses to UNC (27-6, 16-2) 74-73 to advance to the final of the ACC Tournament.

After Carolina’s last ACC Tournament ended in the final to a smothering Virginia team, the locker room was akin to a funeral visitation.

Voices were hushed, players dejected and tone somber.

So after a last-second loss to the most bitter rival in the biggest stage with a potential top overall seed in the NCAA Tournament in the balance, one would expect a magnification of the same.

But, strangely enough, that wasn’t the case.

Players were disappointed for sure, but also optimistic.

Regardless of seeding revelations to come Sunday, they knew there’s more basketball to be played.

“We obviously want to win, because we’re competitors,” Luke Maye, who registered his 14th double-double of the season with 14 points and 13 rebounds, said. “But we got to move forward and see what we got next week.”

“We can’t harp on it,” Brandon Robinson said. “We’ve got to look forward to the bigger picture, and that’s competing for a national championship.”

“I think this team’s potential is really high,” Cameron Johnson, who led UNC with 23 points, said. “I believe we’re up there, and we’re going to compete in this next tournament.”

What was the basis for this optimism?

Duke freshman and future top pick Zion Williamson, who had played all of 30 seconds in the previous two meetings after injuring his knee in the first meeting, dominated the Tar Heels.

Williamson had an enormous impact on Part III of the trilogy, starting with winning the opening tip and concluding with the game-winning put-back off his own miss with 31 seconds left en route to 31 points and 11 rebounds.

UNC surely couldn’t have felt good about that, right?

“Even though Zion had 31, I felt like every time, Garrison was on him,” Robinson said of Garrison Brooks’ defensive performance. “He made him work for his points. That boy’s from Alabama. He’s from the South. He had no fear, man. Nobody on this team feared Zion. He’s a hell of a player, but I think a lot of teams, he just intimidates them, and I don’t think he intimidated anybody on this team.”

Brooks fought hard to front Williamson on every possession, and that aggression resulted in his third career foul-out, with the fifth infraction coming with 2:30 left.

Nassir Little was tasked with guarding Williamson in Brooks’ absence, and his size deficit allowed the ACC Player of the Year to get to the basket much easier.

But even with the Williamson dominance and the futility from the 3-point arc (4-27), UNC had a shot to win it in the final seconds against the Blue Devils.

So they weren’t focusing on this game, but rather on the six they hope to follow it.

“That’s going to hurt me for a little bit,” Johnson said. “But we’ve got a chance to, to…”

“Do something special,” Kenny Williams interjected.

Johnson agreed.

“Do something special.”

@jleland_