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The Daily Tar Heel

For UNC graduating players, motivation follows loss to Duke in ACC Tournament

Kenny Williams Duke ACC

Senior guard Kenny Williams (24) dashes to the basket against Duke during the semifinals of the ACC Tournament at the Spectrum Center in Charlotte, N.C. on Friday, March 15, 2019. UNC fell to Duke 73-74. 

CHARLOTTE – It wasn’t the night they had envisioned, but for North Carolina’s graduating players – forward Luke Maye and guards Kenny Williams and Cameron Johnson – Friday’s 74-73 loss to Duke in the ACC Tournament semifinals was part of a larger goal.

“Of course we wanted to win,” Williams said. “But the ACC Tournament has nothing on the national championship.”

That doesn’t mean the loss doesn’t sting, of course. Barring an unlikely fourth matchup with Duke (28-5) in the NCAA Tournament, North Carolina (27-6) narrowly missed out on a chance to beat the Blue Devils for three times in a season for the first time since 1975-1976.

“It’s just tough, man,” Williams said. “Walking back here, you can tell how much everybody wanted to win that game. And it hurts, it definitely hurts, but the good thing is it’s not the end of our season yet.”

And if you subscribe to a particular philosophy, you might see the conference tournament loss as a positive for UNC’s national title aspirations. 

Indeed, as Williams pointed out, the last three times UNC has won the national championship, it failed to capture the ACC Tournament title as well. A motivating loss in the conference tournament bodes well, the theory goes, for NCAA Tournament odds. 

But good luck telling that to the Tar Heel veterans before the final buzzer.

The graduating trio of Johnson, Williams and Maye scored 46 of North Carolina’s 73 points, gathered 22 of 44 rebounds, and sank three of the team’s four 3-pointers. 

Johnson and Williams scored 22 of their combined 32 points before halftime, shooting 7-13 from the field and going six of six from the free throw line. That helped the Tar Heels keep pace with Duke early, leading to a deadlocked 44-44 scoreboard at halftime.

And when UNC failed to score for 4:35 of game time in the second half – a crucial stretch where the Blue Devils tallied four points to take the lead – it was Johnson and Maye who finished and-one layups to snatch the momentum back.

Maye also collected a game-high 13 rebounds, but was unsatisfied with what was likely his last performance against the Blue Devils.

“We’ve got to play better – I’ve got to play better,” Maye said. “We’ve got to have a better job from the top down, and it starts with me. Just got to use it, and continue to improve.”

The senior forward shot 7-18 from the field and went 0-3 from 3-point range, and was matched up with Duke’s Zion Williamson for parts of the night, who had 31 points on 13-19 shooting from the field.

“He’s a good player,” Maye said of Williamson. “He’s tough to guard, he’s very explosive. I mean, it comes down to a team game, and we just didn’t make plays there at the end that we needed to make.”

One of those plays was a missed go-ahead attempt by Johnson with 18 seconds left, a step-back three that Tar Heel fans – and Johnson himself – have grown accustomed to seeing him make.

“When the shot left my hand, I could have swore it went down,” Johnson said. “It felt great coming off the hand. I could have bet a thousand dollars right there that that shot was falling but it just didn't. Sometimes that happens – sometimes that's the difference between winning and losing.”

Then, after Duke missed a pair of free throws, first-year guard Coby White’s long jumper to win the game rimmed out, sealing the game.

“Coby tried to make a play,” Maye said. “Good looking shot, and Nas tried to tip in, and it didn’t go. It was kind of one of those things.”

Heavyweight matchups often make for narrow margins. As much as the loss hurts, the Tar Heels say they remain dead set on using the game as motivation, ensuring the graduating players leave Chapel Hill the right way.

“We all wanted to win – this was an important game for us – but going forward, we’ve just got to use this game to push us to get better,” junior guard Brandon Robinson said.

“We don’t want them to go out without a national championship.”

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