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.