Column: Zion or not, UNC deserves credit for win at Duke

The entire narrative of the season’s first meeting between North Carolina and Duke changed a half-minute into the game on Wednesday night. Duke star Zion Williamson’s shoe came apart as he tried to plant his left foot, and his slide on the floor resulted in a mild sprain of his right knee, from which he didn’t return.

Quickly after the injury, I thought about what would happen if North Carolina won the game without Williamson on the floor for Duke for all but the game’s first possession, and I could immediately imagine how much the national sports media would use the injury as the exclusive reason for the game’s outcome should UNC win.

Zion Williamson (Photo: Duke Athletics)

The Tar Heels did win, earning an 88-72 victory for their fifth win in the last eight games in the rivalry, giving UNC coach Roy Williams a record eighth win over an AP No. 1 team.

There’s no question Williamson’s injury changed the game. It would be impossible for the loss of a national player of the year candidate to not be felt.

But consider who UNC did beat on Wednesday night: a Duke team that still featured three exceptional players in Tre Jones, Cam Reddish and RJ Barrett, the latter two of which are projected as top five picks in the NBA Draft.

The last time Williamson went out with an injury, missing the second half at Florida State, Duke still found a way to win over the Seminoles, who six weeks later have the ACC’s longest winning streak at eight.

Yet Wednesday, UNC beat the Blue Devils handily on their home floor, in arguably the hardest building in college basketball to win in as a visitor.
“We knew coming in how good they were – and they were that good tonight,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said.

The Tar Heels outscored Duke 62-28 in the paint, assisted on 20 of their 38 made field goals and held Duke to 25-for-72 from the floor (34.7 percent).
UNC’s Luke Maye scored 30 points with 15 rebounds – becoming the sixth Tar Heel with five career games of 30-plus points and 10-plus rebounds – and Cameron Johnson scored 26 points with seven rebounds and four assists.

Maye’s performance was likely aided at least some by the absence of Williamson on the interior. But the fact is, both Maye and Johnson played tremendous games, something even Coach K acknowledged.

“They played well – especially their two veteran guys, they played really great,” Krzyzewski said.

There’s no question Duke did not play well – they shot 8-for-39 (20.5 percent) from beyond the arc, committed 20 turnovers and only had nine assists.

Some of their issues, particularly in the post, can be at least partially blamed on Williamson being absent from a game after the Blue Devils game planned under the assumption he’d be playing.

But anyone who asserts that Williamson’s injury is the only reason North Carolina won didn’t watch the game closely enough. UNC led by as many as 22 points and Duke was never closer than 13 over the game’s final 17:25.

The Tar Heels went to Cameron Indoor Stadium and beat the No. 1 team in college basketball. Duke is the top-ranked team because of more than just one player and is probably still a top-five-caliber team without him.

UNC deserves credit for earning the victory, and doing so convincingly. Even while beating a weakened Duke team, it’s still the Tar Heels’ best win so far in a very strong season.