'The No. 1 pick for a reason': Zion Williamson too much for UNC in ACC semifinals
UNC senior forward Luke Maye (32) and Duke first-year forward Zion Williamson (1) dive for the ball 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 — Zion Williamson spent most of Friday night making a play that seemed like it would be his defining one against North Carolina, Duke’s bitter rival, and then quickly topping it with something better.
There was the dunk under the basket, where, after one dribble, he hung in the air long enough to twist from the left side of the goal to the right. Less than a minute later, the steal at halfcourt, followed by two dribbles and a vicious right-hand slam that made a crazy Spectrum Center crowd even crazier.
Williamson trumped himself for a final time, though, with the bucket that sent the Blue Devils to the ACC Tournament Championship, which gave him a game-high 31 points and sent North Carolina (27-6) home with its first loss in over a month.
Trailing 73-72, Duke (28-5) isolated Williamson on the left wing, with first-year Nassir Little defending him. He drove right, spun left and missed a contested shot in the paint. But Williamson sprung back immediately, outleaping UNC’s Coby White, Luke Maye and Cameron Johnson, to grab his own miss and drop it back in from point-blank range.
74-73 Duke. And, after last-second misses from White and Little, game over.
“To keep it simple, it's a rivalry,” Williamson said, “and that’s how rivalries go.”
Duke’s first-year star had played just over 30 seconds in two prior meetings with UNC. The Tar Heels, who swept the Blue Devils in the regular season for the first time since 2009, came into Friday with a game plan to contain him.
From what UNC players said in the locker room afterward, they executed that game plan pretty well. But Williamson — whose 31 came on 13-19 shooting, with 11 rebounds to boot — was simply too good.
“I mean, Zion is one of the greatest, if not the greatest, player in the nation,” forward Sterling Manley said. “We knew he was going to make shots and get what he gets, but we just wanted to try to contain him, try to make it hard, try to make him shoot over guys, play a little physical with him.”
Head coach Roy Williams’ strategy hinged, at first, on one player. Garrison Brooks, a 6-foot-9 forward who has started every game for UNC, was to guard Williamson man to man. Brooks has won North Carolina’s defensive player of the game award 10 times this season, including Thursday’s quarterfinal win against Louisville.
“I figured I was going to be tasked with the challenge,” said Brooks, who learned of his defensive assignment pregame. “I don't feel like I did a very good job.”
Williamson missed a few shots early, but he soon found success sealing off Brooks for over-the-top passes — he scored two layups like that in the first half. He finished the first half with 16 points, but UNC’s Cameron Johnson lessened that damage by matching Williamson with 16 of his own.
“He definitely adds a different dimension to their team,” Johnson said. “He's a really good athlete and he does a lot of things that they don't have without him, so it kind of changes the way they play offensively.”
In the second half, Brooks found himself in foul trouble. He had just two fouls at halftime, but picked up two more in the span of four seconds, with about seven minutes left in the game. With Brooks forced to sit, North Carolina decided to put Little on Williamson, betting on the athleticism and length of its own likely NBA lottery pick.
“The next best defense for us … if you don't have Garrison, who is a really good good defender, is your best athlete,” Williams said. “And that was bringing Nassir in the game.”
The 6-foot-6 Little defended Williamson, for the most part, until Brooks returned at the 3:47 mark. Within a minute, Brooks had gotten his fifth and final foul, called on a drive by Williamson.
Little took over again at that point — most notably, on Duke’s go-ahead possession, when Williamson’s springy second jump gave him an offensive rebound and game-winning putback.
“(Williamson) just got the best of him with that second rebound,” Leaky Black said. “That’s pretty much it. I feel like my boy Nas really did a good job defending him.”
The announced attendance on Friday night was 20,116 — a new record for a college basketball game at the Spectrum Center. And a college basketball game they got. It was just the second time that UNC and Duke were both ranked within the AP top five when meeting in the ACC Tournament.
North Carolina threw its best game plan at Williamson. But, in the words of Roy Williams, “the guy that’s been hurt came back and put on his Superman jersey again and was incredible.”
In what will almost certainly be his only game against the Tar Heels, Williamson made a lasting mark in the rivalry.
“He's the No. 1 pick for a reason,” Brooks said. “It just shows.”