CHARLOTTE — Consider this a plea to the basketball gods, a prayer to the cosmic keepers of The Bracket.
Three times seeing Duke-North Carolina this season is not enough.
Over the many years of your tournament in its various forms and field sizes, never have we had an opportunity to see these two great Tobacco Road rivals play in a Final Four. In an event that has given us everything from the randomness of VCU-Butler to the unbridled heat of Louisville-Kentucky, it’s high time we get a chance to see Duke-North Carolina playing for everything.
So why not now — or, more specifically, three weeks from now in Minneapolis? If it’s anything like Friday, when Duke held on for a 74-73 victory in the ACC tournament semifinals, it is more than worthy of your consideration.
“I’m not going to say like, ‘Oh my God, I hope we play them again,' ” Duke freshman Zion Williamson said, splashing a dose of cold water on the prospect. “I’m not going to start no extra drama. They’re a great team. If we see them, we see them. If not, oh well.”
But as Williamson’s put-back off his own miss gave Duke the lead for the final time with 31 seconds left and North Carolina forward Cam Johnson couldn’t make a hurried jumper as time ran out, it felt like there was still some unfinished business.
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Duke can say it might have won either or both of the first two meetings against North Carolina had Williamson not been forced out with a knee injury. North Carolina can say it might have swept three in a row had it not suffered an uncharacteristically poor 4-for-27 shooting performance from the 3-point line.
Of all the years North Carolina and Duke have played each other while both were highly ranked, this season as much as any feels like we need to see it one more time to get the final word.
“Zion did have a big influence on the game,” said Tar Heels coach Roy Williams, who has been noticeably miffed by questions suggesting his team should apologize in some way for not playing Duke at full strength until Friday. “But injuries are part of the game as well. I can go back and many times tell you that we have had injuries that really hurt us and Zion being hurt really hurt Duke, but it was still Duke-North Carolina. He made some big-time plays down the stretch that they didn’t have the last couple of games.”
Duke Blue Devils forward Zion Williamson (1) shoots against North Carolina Tar Heels forward Nassir Little (5) in the second half. (Photo: Jeremy Brevard, USA TODAY Sports)
You could argue he might have made more had Duke committed to ensuring Williamson touched the ball on every possession, which probably would have been a good idea considering he made 13-of-19 field goals for 31 points and was too strong and agile for North Carolina’s bigs to guard him the post.
Duke, being the young team that it is, did not maximize that advantage. Over the final nine minutes, Williamson made 4-of-6 field goals, while his teammates made just 1-of-9, not to mention R.J. Barrett missed two free throws with 12 seconds remaining that handed North Carolina guard Coby White a chance to win it (he didn’t, missing a desperate 3-pointer).
That sequence underscored the idea that Duke isn’t a team of three freshmen stars the way it was billed back in October. This is Williamson’s team. He’s the best scorer, the best passer and the best defender (he bothered Luke Maye and Nassir Little enough to force two key misses near the rim down the stretch).
Duke is an above-average team without him; it is a clear No. 1 seed and national title favorite with him. And because of that poorly timed injury back on Feb. 20 in the opening minute of the first Duke-UNC meeting, we were robbed of the opportunity to see these two terrific championship contenders play at relatively full strength until Friday.
“Both historic programs going at it,” Barrett said. “They kept coming at us, and we kept going at them all game long. Such a fun game to be in.”
And to watch. So let’s do it again, shall we?
That may not be a terribly popular idea in this state, where the underlying emotion of this rivalry might run too deep to maintain sanity. A Final Four meeting might be too big, too important to make it enjoyable.
But for the rest of us, another crack at Duke-North Carolina is exactly what we deserve. So make it happen, basketball gods. While we usually trust you to do right by the bracket, in this particular year, nothing less than Part Four at the Final Four will do.
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