Column: Westwood’s last good chance?

For much of his career, Lee Westwood was known as the current “best player to never win a major,” and the Englishman is, quite frankly, one of the best golfers of all-time to never win a major championship.

This week, Westwood is squarely in contention at the 148th Open Championship, sitting a shot back of co-leaders Shane Lowry and J.B. Holmes at the event’s halfway mark.

Westwood is no stranger to the position he’s in, but him and those watching alike have to be wondering if this Open is the last good chance that he will have to shred the dreaded “never won a major” label.

When the championship ends Sunday, Westwood will be 46 years, 2 months and 27 days old. A victory would make him the third-oldest player to win a major, four days older than Jack Nicklaus in the 1986 Masters and 11 days younger than the second-oldest, Old Tom Morris in the 1867 Open Championship.

Context would make a win even more historic. No player has ever reached Westwood’s age before winning their first major championship. Jerry Barber, who won the 1961 PGA Championship at age 44, is the oldest first-time major champion.

But what Westwood lacks in youth, he makes up for in experience. He has 24 European Tour wins (eighth-most all-time) and has been a part of seven victorious Ryder Cup teams in his 10 appearances. And while he hasn’t won a major, it isn’t because of a lack of chances over his career.

Westwood has finished in the top five in The Open four times, in addition to three times each at the Masters and U.S. Open and once in the PGA Championship. He has 18 top 10 finishes in majors spanning from 1997-2016, including two in each year from 2009-13.

But Westwood’s form over the last few years hasn’t matched that of his prime. Since a tie for second at the 2016 Masters, Westwood hasn’t finished better than 18th in a major.

After spending most of his career ranked in the top 10 in the Official World Golf Rankings, he’s now ranked 78th and has only qualified for three of the last eight majors — a 61st-place finish in last year’s Open and a missed cut at May’s PGA Championship.

Missed cuts this week by contemporaries such as Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson and Padraig Harrington also serve as a reminder that the golfers of Westwood’s generation are no longer able to contend week in and week out.

But one of those peers, Woods, has won a major this year, proving that it can still be done by someone in their mid-40s (and to say Tiger had also been through a slump before his win would be a huge understatement).

Westwood enters the weekend with more major-championship experience than anyone else in contention, although he’ll have to beat some big names if he wants to lift the Claret Jug on Sunday. Behind Lowry and Holmes, Tommy Fleetwood is tied with Westwood one shot back, ahead of a list of contenders that also includes Justin Rose, Brooks Koepka and Jordan Spieth, all within three strokes or less. Matt Kuchar and Dustin Johnson are among those further back that could still have a chance with a good weekend.

Surely he feels pressure — he has to know this could potentially be his last good chance at the one thing in professional golf that’s eluded him — but perhaps he can continue his solid play and earn a storybook triumph in his nation’s championship.

Local favorite?

Another storybook ending could take place if Lowry can turn the 36-hole co-lead into his first major championship.

This Open at Royal Portrush is the first contested in Northern Ireland since 1961. But while Northern Ireland had three players in the field, only one made the cut, and Portrush native Graeme McDowell is likely out of contention nine shots back.

The other Northern Irishman each had a memorable first two days — Darren Clarke hit the tournament’s opening shot, birdied the first hole and led early Thursday morning, while Rory McIlroy made a stirring run at the cut line late Friday, coming back from a first-round 79 only to fall one shot short — but will not be around for the weekend.

Who will the locals root for with no one from Northern Ireland in contention? Enter Lowry.

The 32-year-old Irishman, from about 120 miles south of Portrush, not only joins McDowell as the only two players from the island of Ireland to make the cut, but will be the local favorite for the fans at Royal Portrush this weekend.

While Ireland and Northern Ireland have had a tumultuous relationship over the course of history, fans fully supported Lowry over the first two days around the Royal Portrush links. Relations have softened between the two nations in recent decades, and many Irish fans may have crossed the border (about 55 miles away) to attend The Open at Royal Portrush this week.

Other fan-favorites this weekend will be Brits Westwood, Fleetwood and Rose and the always-popular Spieth and Kuchar. But Lowry is in better position than any of those names entering the third round, and may have equal or better support too.

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Column: Buckner should be remembered for more than one play

When the name Bill Buckner is mentioned in any game of word association, where participants say the first thing that comes to their mind, one thing immediately comes to mind in Boston, New York and, frankly, worldwide.

Bill Buckner’s career had progressed solidly and steadily before one certain play in the penultimate game of his 18th MLB season, and continued for four more years before he retired. But he’s most remembered for what happened on the final pitch of Game 6 of the 1986 World Series.

Buckner died Monday at age 69 after battling Lewy body dementia, 33 years after that fateful play.

To the outsider or even the casual fan, Buckner’s career was defined by one trickling ground ball on Oct. 25, 1986 that somehow got through his 36-year-old legs, allowed Ray Knight to score the game-winning run for the New York Mets and is perceived to have extended the Boston Red Sox World Series drought, which dated back to 1918 and eventually ended in 2004.

But Buckner was so much more than “The Buckner Boot”; anyone who played 22 seasons would have more depth to their career than the three seconds it took for a baseball to travel from Mookie Wilson’s bat to between Buckner’s legs.

“His life was defined by perseverance, resilience and an insatiable will to win,” Red Sox owner John Henry said in a statement Monday. “Those are the traits for which he will be most remembered.”

Buckner wasn’t a Hall of Fame-caliber player — only 2.1 percent of the electors voted for Buckner in his only year on the Hall of Fame ballot — but he was what I like to call a “Hall of Very Good” player. Anyone who sticks around the big leagues for 22 years does so because they’ve proven to be a noteworthy player.

Buckner earned 2,715 hits, hitting for a .289 lifetime average in a career that touched four different decades. He was a true “professional hitter” who only struck out 453 times in his entire career, and never more than twice in a single game.

He hit over .300 in seven seasons, including a .324 season in 1980 that won him the National League batting title while with the Chicago Cubs.

He was only an All-Star once, in 1981, but twice finished in the top 10 in MVP voting, in 1981 and 1982.

Buckner is mostly remembered for his time with the Red Sox — that’s where the error occurred, after all — but he had a pair of strong eight-year stints with NL clubs, the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Cubs.

With the Dodgers, he was part of the 1974 team that won the NL pennant and lost the World Series to the Oakland Athletics. With the Cubs, he was part of the 1984 NL East-championship team that ended a 39-year playoff drought, though he was traded away at midseason.

While known for the error in the 1986 World Series, he was actually part of another of the most historic and frequently-replayed moments in baseball history, though as more of a footnote. When Hank Aaron hit his 715th career home run to top Babe Ruth’s all-time record, Buckner was the left fielder who tried to climb the fence in an attempt to make a play on the ball as it sailed over his head and into the Braves bullpen.

When Buckner participated in the 1986 World Series, he had made 8,996 major-league plate appearances (on his way to 10,037). His experience at age 36 was valuable to the Red Sox, and he hit third in their lineup, but his ankles were showing their age and Dave Stapleton was often used as a defensive replacement at first base in the late innings when the Red Sox led.

In Game 6, they took a 5-3 lead in the 10th inning after Dave Henderson homered and were three outs away from their first championship in 68 years. Manager John McNamara left Buckner in the game.

After Calvin Schiraldi got the first two outs he allowed three straight singles to the never-say-die Mets. Bob Stanley replaced Schiraldi and — in an important detail that’s oft-forgotten in the narrative blaming Buckner for the Red Sox’ loss — allowed Kevin Mitchell to score the tying run on a wild pitch earlier in Wilson’s at-bat.

The Buckner play became the enduring memory of Game 6 because it ended the game and forced a Game 7, one which the Red Sox lost despite two hits and a run by Buckner.

But three things should be remembered: First, if Schiraldi and/or Stanley did their job more efficiently the Buckner play would have never existed because the Wilson at-bat would have never happened. Second, if the Red Sox don’t also blow the lead two nights later in Game 7, Buckner’s error would be a moot point because the Red Sox would have still achieved their goal of winning the World Series.

And third, Buckner’s career was far more than one game. He played in 2,539 other major-league games (including postseason) and was an impactful player.

Unfortunately, those things were largely forgotten over the years in much of the discussion about the ’86 Series, among fans and the media alike — especially before the Red Sox’ 2004 championship season.

Buckner was released by the Red Sox in mid-1987 but came back to the team in 1990, his final season.

Over the last four years of his playing career, Buckner was heckled both in Boston and around the rest of the league, both while still on the Red Sox and in short stints with the California Angels and Kansas City Royals. Even after his retirement, Buckner’s error never stopped getting media attention — even to this day, in some ways — though it subsided as the Red Sox began winning championships; they’ve now won four in the last 15 years.

Buckner, who grew up in California, moved to Idaho after his playing career, in part to escape the constant reminders of that one ill-fated play. For several years, he declined invitations to appear at Fenway Park in Boston, but he accepted the Red Sox’ invitation to throw out the first pitch on Opening Day 2008 as part of the team’s celebration of their 2007 championship.

“I really had to forgive, not the fans of Boston per se, but I would have to say in my heart I had to forgive the media for what they put me and my family through,” Buckner said that day. “So, you know, I’ve done that and I’m over that.”

Buckner even appeared at autograph-signing events with Wilson, who commented on Buckner’s death in a statement Monday.

“We had developed a friendship that lasted well over 30 years,” Wilson said. “I felt badly for some of the things he went through. Bill was a great, great baseball player whose legacy should not be defined by one play.”

But even in his death, Buckner’s career still is being most remembered for one error. Every story on Buckner Monday mentioned the error or included a clip of the play, while far less mentioned his 1,208 RBIs. Some of the famous photographs of his dejected stare in reaction to the play have topped obituaries rather than images from any of his 718 extra-base hits.

The word association with Buckner’s name remains “error,” even as “good player” and “professional hitter” would a more appropriate reflection as his life is remembered in the coming days.

Column: Last year’s upset now part of Virginia’s Final Four redemption story

Last year, Virginia was the victim of the greatest upset in NCAA Tournament history when they became the first-ever No. 1 seed to lose a first-round game to a No. 16 seed, UMBC.

What a difference a year makes.

Saturday, 379 days after losing to UMBC, Virginia defeated Purdue 80-75 in an overtime epic to win the tournament’s South Regional and advance to the Final Four for the first time since 1984.

While the memory of the UMBC defeat will still be an unpleasant one for coach Tony Bennett, his Cavaliers and their fans, Saturday’s victory changes the narrative of that loss. In a bubble, the loss was the worst thing that could have happened to a college basketball team. But in the bigger picture, the loss becomes the beginning of one of the great redemption stories ever seen in sports.

This is not to suggest that Virginia’s loss last year was a “good thing” — to do so would disrespect both the accomplishment of UMBC and the Virginia seniors from last year who experienced that heartbreak and haven’t experienced this year’s Final Four run.

Virginia players celebrate after advancing to the Final Four on Saturday. (Photo: Virginia Athletics)

But now, a year and a program-record 33 wins later, coach Tony Bennett and his team can begin the story of this year’s success with that loss and recall how they overcame the humiliation and noise that came from it, only to come back better and reach the Final Four the following March.

A year after going to his knees in despair as time expired against UMBC, senior Kyle Guy finished the win over the Boilermakers on his knees as well — but this time he was overcome with jubilation.

“I was definitely flashing back to when I was on my knees last year, and I did it again,” Guy said. “And that was just, you know, just overflowing with joy. So happy for my teammates and my coaches and for myself to be able to break through in the way that we did this year. Not only did we silence (Bennett’s) critics, we silenced our own and we’re so grateful for our fans that traveled and have always believed in us.”

Bennett’s Virginia team reaching the Final Four — on the 10th anniversary of his hiring, no less — also helps change the overall narrative around the program. Even before last year’s upset loss, many saw the Cavaliers as a team that played great in the regular season but couldn’t win in the NCAA Tournament.

“There were a lot of people that didn’t think we would make it this far in the tournament,” sophomore Jay Huff said. “After last year, a lot of people were thinking similar would happen, there would be an early exit in the tournament. Obviously, we don’t go out just to prove people wrong, but it is fun knowing they’ll have to eat their words a little bit.”

That perception wasn’t completely unfounded. Since Virginia’s run of success began in the 2013-14 season, the team lost in the Sweet 16 in 2014 and the second round in 2015 after a pair of first-place finishes in the ACC. In 2016 the Cavaliers blew a double-digit lead in the final minutes of their Elite Eight game against No. 10-seed Syracuse, before a 2017 second-round loss to Florida.

Every loss except the one to Florida came as the higher seed (either a No. 1 or No. 2 seed in each case), and against the Gators the Cavaliers could only muster 39 points.

“You think of all the guys that came before us and just the teams that were so close and showed you just how difficult it is to get to the Final Four,” Jerome said after Saturday’s game. “And how many times Coach Bennett has been a 1-seed or a 2-seed and has had so much regular season success. To be the team that gets him to the Final Four, I think that’s what means the most.”

Then came UMBC. Virginia — a program known more than anything else for a staunch defense — allowed 53 second-half points in a 20-point loss to the Retreivers. They weren’t just the first No. 1-seed to lose to a No. 16; they were routed. The narrative about postseason struggles intensified exponentially.

After that loss Bennett told his team they had to own it. He said they had no choice but for that loss to be a part of their legacy — it was going to be in the record books no matter how much the team disliked it — and that the best way to respond would be to come back and add a successful 2018-19 campaign to that legacy.

And did they ever add to that legacy. This group of Cavaliers — the upperclassman leaders Guy and Ty Jerome, the star forward De’Andre Hunter, the sixth-man-turned-postseason-starter Mamadi Diakite, the big New Zealander Jack Salt, the small but quick Kihei Clark and a solid-though-seldom-used group of reserves — will now become the Virginia players in 35 years to play in the Final Four, and could become the first Cavaliers to win a national championship.

“The quote we use is ‘If you learn to use it right, the adversity, it will buy you a ticket to a place you couldn’t have gone any other way.’” Bennett said. “I didn’t know if that meant we’d get to a Final Four … I just knew that would deepen us in ways on the court, off the court and what we believe and mark us for the right stuff. And that, I think, is what took place.”

After failing to execute in their previous tournament failures, the Cavaliers made the big plays on Saturday night. Guy made five second-half threes en route to a 25-point night, Hunter hit the layup with 28 seconds left in overtime that gave the Cavaliers the lead for good and Clark hit the free throws in the final seconds to ice it.

And then there was the biggest play in the game, in the tournament and in Virginia basketball history: Trailing by two in the final seconds, Diakite tipped the rebound of a missed Jerome free throw out past half court, Clark ran it down and frantically passed the ball back to Diakite, who threw up a 15-foot prayer — one which was nothing but net and sent the game to overtime, where Virginia eventually won.

These clutch plays helped to ultimately change the outcome of the game and perhaps the tournament. They helped change the perception of an entire program.

And they helped change this group of Cavaliers’ tournament legacy, from that of the event’s most notable losers to that of Final Four-bound redeemed regional champions.

Column: 16-seeds more confident after one of their peers pulled it off

Think back to when you were growing up and faced the daunting task of doing something new, scary and daring.

If you’re like me, you may have been more likely to feel comfortable enough to go for it if you saw one of your peers finish the task first — whether it was riding a bicycle without training wheels, diving into the deep end of the pool or riding on the zip line at summer camp.

For 16th-seeded Gardner-Webb, North Dakota State and Iona as they entered the 2019 NCAA Tournament, last year’s UMBC team may very well have been that peer.

Fifty-two weeks ago the Retrievers shocked the world by becoming the first No. 16 seed to defeat a No. 1 seed in the tournament’s first round when they beat Virginia 74-54, a feat previously thought by some to be impossible.

While none of this year’s 16-seeds were able to repeat the feat, Gardner-Webb, North Dakota State and Iona each played their top-seeded opponent extremely well for the first half of their games against Virginia, Duke and North Carolina and avoided being thought of as just an also-ran when fans and pundits recapped the first round outcomes. (Sorry, Fairleigh Dickinson, this column isn’t about you.)

Sure, the Cavaliers, Blue Devils and Tar Heels posted dominant second halves to win and advance (Virginia beat Gardner-Webb 73-58; Duke topped North Dakota State 85-62; North Carolina defeated Iona 88-73). It should be expected that this would happen in these games considering the talent gap between these No. 1 seeds — by definition the best teams in the country — and their 16th-seeded counterparts. The ability of great coaches to make halftime adjustments — and UVA’s Tony Bennett, Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski and UNC’s Roy Williams all fit that description — is also a factor in the games turning back towards the favorites, even after two of these three No. 1 seeds trailed at halftime and the other was up by just four points.

But as Gardner-Webb, North Dakota State and Iona each played on Friday there was a sense that the teams had a new sense of confidence never seen before in 16-seeds, knowing now that beating a No. 1 seed was not just something that hypothetically could happen, but something that has happened.

(Photo: Gardner-Webb Athletics)

It started in mid-afternoon as Gardner-Webb held a 28-14 lead on Virginia — the very team that lost to UMBC last year in the tournament’s ultimate upset — before the Runnin’ Bulldogs led 36-30 at halftime. Surely thoughts of last year’s game and all the noise surrounding it since had to creep into the heads of the Cavaliers, though Bennett’s club responded with their typical stanch defense, holding Gardner-Webb to 20 second-half points.

North Dakota State led 12-5 early and was tied with Duke as late as the 2:13 mark of the first half before trailing 31-27 at the break. Duke — the No. 1 overall seed and the tournament’s largest betting favorite in four years — used a 33-10 run to start the second half and put the game out of the Bison’s reach, scoring 54 second-half points en route to the second round.

Iona hit 10 threes in the first half to take a 38-33 halftime lead over North Carolina. The Tar Heels outrebounded the Gaels 52-26 for the game and Iona made just five of 20 threes in the second half, instigating a 30-9 UNC run that allowed them to cruise to the win.

While each of these three No. 16 seeds lost in the end, they all have nothing to hang their heads about and can be proud of the way they competed. Each of them took their best shot at an excellent opponent and provided them with a stiff first-round test — something that has often not been the case in past 1-vs-16 matchups, as the average margin of victory by 1-seeds over 16-seeds since 2015 is 26.8 points, with nearly half those games decided by 30-plus points.

While any reasonable pundit won’t expect 16-seed-over-1-seed upsets to become a normal occurrence, this year’s crop of three compelling games and three legitimate upset attempts could be a sign that the days of pushover 16-seeds may be history.

Because while facing a No. 1 seed is a daunting and scary task, they’ve now seen one of their peers finish the job.

Column: A true Duke-UNC game

Over the last week, I’ve had the incredible opportunity to cover the 250th and 251st meetings of Duke and North Carolina on the basketball court.

But while last Saturday in Chapel Hill I covered a collegiate basketball game between Duke University and the University of North Carolina, it wasn’t until Friday night at the ACC Tournament in Charlotte that I truly saw a Duke-UNC game.

Don’t get me wrong, the game at the Smith Center was quite an experience. Emotions were high — not just because of the rivalry but because of Senior Night for three likable players who have spent their careers endearing themselves to the UNC fan base — and the atmosphere was terrific. The cheer for the first UNC basket was the loudest cheer I’d heard to that point in the four UNC home games I covered this year, and only got louder from there, especially as the Tar Heels pulled away in the second half and held on for the 79-70 win.

But Friday night at the Spectrum Center in uptown Charlotte I witnessed a game truly befitting of the Duke-UNC rivalry, and one that none of the Spectrum Center-record 20,116 in attendance will ever forget.

It was (despite some poor shooting numbers) a game played at an exceptionally high level, a game that every possession — especially in the second half — felt immensely and increasingly important. A game with two teams so evenly matched they changed the lead eight times and neither team led by more than five points over the last 15:15 of breathtaking action.

And it was a game that one Zion Lateef Williamson came to play.

The Duke freshman phenom — injured 36 seconds into the first meeting and absent in the second, returning to action just this Thursday — scored 31 points with 11 rebounds, including nine of the last 11 points the Blue Devils scored, and gave Duke the lead for good on a putback of his own miss with 31 seconds left, securing a 74-73 victory.

While the season’s first two meetings were remarkable in their own right — as Jay Bilas says, Duke-UNC always delivers — their drama and tension paled in comparison to the marvel of the tertiary game.

That was partially due to the heavyweight-bout-like game unfolding in front of a boisterous bipartisan crowd. It was partially due to the highest stakes these teams have had in any game all season, seeking a berth in the championship game at the granddaddy of all conference tournaments.

And it was partially due to the sheer presence of Williamson.

In the first two meetings, with Williamson missing, it was clear as could be that the Tar Heels were the better team. Nine- and 16-point wins were the result.

Friday night, with Duke finally near full strength (sans Marques Bolden) and UNC seeming to peak at the right time, as Roy Williams’ teams so often seem to do, the two teams put on a performance that was worthy of a national final, far above the expected level for a conference semifinal.

And who knows, with the skill levels of the two teams and the March pedigrees of the two programs perhaps a fourth meeting in the national final, or at least the late stages of the NCAA Tournament, isn’t too far-fetched.

But unless that happens — and even if one of the teams cuts down the nets in Minneapolis in three weeks — one of the clear and enduring memories of this season for fans of both teams will be Friday’s game, one of the greatest chapters in a Duke-UNC book full of legendary installments.

“That was obviously a great game,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “Vintage ACC, Duke-North Carolina, you know, both teams played so hard and well.”

In many ways it was a perfect storm: the greatest rivalry in college basketball being played on a neutral floor in the state of North Carolina’s largest city, with ACC championship aspirations on the line along with UNC’s wishes of a three-game season sweep of Duke for the first time since 1976, all in what will very likely be the only real appearance in the rivalry for the most explosive and dynamic college basketball player in many years.

“The guy that’s been hurt came back and put on his Superman jersey again and was incredible,” UNC coach Roy Williams said. “It’s such a blend of strength and power and quickness that we couldn’t stop him getting the basketball inside and going to the basket.”

Duke-UNC transcends the realms of a typical college basketball game. Williamson transcends the realms of a typical college basketball player — even of a typical college basketball star.

The result was a game that a couple of columnists that have covered the ACC for many years called the greatest and second-greatest games they’d ever seen live (with one ranking the 2017 UNC-Villanova national final first).

Sure, I saw Duke and North Carolina play last week. But Friday night I was truly introduced to the rivalry, as I saw an absolute classic that will live on in Duke-UNC lore.

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.

Column: Mejia’s return shows how little MLB cares

The phrase “lifetime ban” just sounds harsh. It sounds stern, sounds eternal.

Unless, of course, said ban isn’t actually for a lifetime, but just for three years — less than the normal amount of time needed to earn a college degree.

Jennry Mejia, who was given a lifetime ban from MLB just three years ago, was reinstated last year and Tuesday the Boston Red Sox have signed the right-handed pitcher to a minor-league contract. If Mejia pitches well, there’s a chance he could reach the major leagues again this season.

Mejia, a 29-year-old Dominican, was banned on Feb. 12, 2016 as punishment for his third positive test for performance-enhancing drugs, the typical penalty according to the MLB and MLB Players Association’s Joint Drug Agreement.

Jennry Mejia (Flickr)

Players are allowed to apply for reinstatement after a minimum of two years, subject to the commissioner’s discretion. Commissioner Rob Manfred approved Mejia’s reinstatement for the 2019 season on July 6 of last year.

MLB’s penalties for players who test positive for PEDs are widely considered to be the toughest in sports. But that consideration is based on the lifetime ban for the third offense, not a ban that is only three years in actuality.

The fact MLB would allow Mejia — or any three-time offender — back into their sport is appalling.

This is a man who knowingly took the banned substances stanozolol and Boldenone in an intentional effort to cheat his way to success. All three of his positive tests were within one year; the failed tests were announced April 11 and July 28 of 2015 and Feb. 12, 2016.

Here’s how blatant Mejia’s PED use was: after his 80-game suspension for his first failed test, he only pitched seven games before he was busted a second time. And his third failed drug test, the one resulting in the “lifetime ban,” came before his 162-game suspension for the second had expired.

Why would MLB want this phony back in their game? While Mejia appeared to be a good pitcher in his last full season in 2014, saving 28 games for the Mets with a 3.65 ERA, that success comes with the uncertainty of how much help he had from PEDs.

If MLB were truly serious about keeping their game as clean as possible, they wouldn’t even have read Mejia’s application for reinstatement, much less granted his return to the game.

Instead, the league showed a concerning nonchalance by allowing Mejia to pitch. There’s no good reason MLB should want Mejia playing.

Sure, he’ll be subject to six urine tests and three blood tests per year on top of the league’s random drug tests required of every player.

But the point of the penalties is to serve as a deterrent to people committing the acts in the first place. It’s the same reason those convicted of a crime are sent to prison.

Yet that deterrent is lessened when the penalty on the third offense proves to not be a lifetime ban, but instead a three-year ban. A 25-year-old — like Mejia in 2015 — having their career ended for a third positive test is far more blunt (and appropriate) a penalty than allowing the player to come back at 28, still in their physical prime.

MLB says they’re doing everything they can to keep PEDs out of baseball. But actions speak louder than words.