Cameron was buzzing at the opening tip. Barack Obama entered the building minutes before, and numerous hype videos had helped fire up the Crazies, who had stood around for two hours waiting for the game to start.
However, less than 35 seconds later, the building went silent.
The projected No. 1 pick in the NBA Draft, the next LeBron James and Instagram legend Zion Williamson broke through his shoe on a dribble, went down and clenched his knee in pain. Minutes later he was escorted to the locker room and would not return. It was later announced by head coach Mike Krzyzewski in the press conference that the star freshman suffered a mild knee sprain.
Top-ranked Duke fell to No. 8 North Carolina 88-72 Wednesday evening at Cameron Indoor Stadium. Without Williamson, Duke could not slow down 6-foot-8 forward Luke Maye, who tormented the Blue Devils on the interior with 18 first half points and finished with team-highs of 30 points and 15 rebounds. The Tar Heels opened up a 13-point advantage with 6:02 remaining in the first half and it appeared as though Duke had no answer on either side of the court.
"It was an unusual night. We knew coming in how good they were, and they were that good," Krzyzewski said. "It’s crazy that the two games that we’ve lost here something has happened in the first parts of the game. The preparation that you would have before the game is obviously based on players being there. Especially [Zion] and R.J. [Barrett], who are the key guys.
"It puts everyone in a state of trying to figure it out while you’re playing an outstanding team. It’s not a good situation. I thought our guys really played hard in the first half. We were not back after that injury. You could see it."
Fellow freshmen R.J. Barrett and Cam Reddish carried the load offensively from there, accruing 28 of the Blue Devils’ first half total of 32 and helping Duke cut the Tar Heel lead down to five, but the Blue Devils could not get closer. North Carolina capitalized on a silly turnover and a questionable 3-point attempt from Reddish to open up a 42-32 advantage at the break.
The Tar Heels (21-5, 11-2 in the ACC) stormed out of the break on an 15-3 run on perfect 7-for-7 shooting to open up a 22-point advantage with 16:46 remaining in the contest as Maye capitalized on his mismatch with Barrett. Struggling from the perimeter, Cam Johnson found ways to beat Duke (23-3, 11-2) inside the arc, finishing with 26 points on 11-of-17 shooting.
"Their two veteran guys played great, Maye and Cameron Johnson. I thought we regrouped and we fought like crazy. We put a lot of pressure on our shots, where you felt that we’ve got this guy out, we’ve got to hit. And we didn’t," Krzyzewski said. "In the second half when we settled in at halftime the realization that he’s not there stunned us. We were horrible at the start of the half."
Duke has played without Williamson before. Against Florida State Jan. 12, Reddish and Barrett carried the scoring load after the 285-pound freshman was poked in the eye in the closing seconds of the first half. The Blue Devils could not stop the Seminoles in the paint, but sharpshooting by Barrett and Reddish allowed Duke to stick around and put the team in position for Reddish’s buzzer-beater.
Barrett and Reddish led the team with 33 and 27 points, respectively, but the Blue Devils could not replicate that shooting performance. Both Duke and the Tar Heels could not make a shot in the opening 20 minutes—the teams combined to make just 3-of-34 attempts beyond the arc and Duke would finish 8-for-39 from the perimeter.
"We’ve never really played a full game without [Williamson]." Barrett said. "So, it was tough, we had to try and readjust on the fly and they really got the better of us today."
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Sloppiness was a theme throughout the contest for the Blue Devils which coughed up the ball 20 times. Even Tre Jones, who leads the nation in assist-to-turnover ratio, had an uncharacteristic outing with three turnovers to just five assists. Ball movement plagued Duke without Williamson as the team totaled a mere nine assists on 25 baskets. While the Tar Heels were able to adapt to their poor perimeter play with domination on the interior, the Blue Devils unsuccessfully tried to comeback with deep balls.
Duke cut the lead down to 16 with 13:40 to play after a pair of 3-point possessions from Barrett and Reddish. A triple by Reddish minutes later would cut the deficit to 14, and Barrett would answer a Tar Heel score with 10 minutes left to cut it to 13, but North Carolina would answer and stretch it back to 19 with 6:39 remaining.
The Blue Devils made another last-minute attempt at a comeback after Reddish drained a triple to cut the deficit back to 13 with 2:44 in the contest, but it would prove to be too little too late.
"In the last 16 minutes we played our butts off. We dug ourselves a huge hole against an outstanding team," Krzyzewski said. "It seemed like every loose ball we could not come up. We got our hands on it, we forced it. The fact is our guys were doing it. I was proud of our guys. They played really hard and they played to win so we just have to regroup."
Duke will look to lick its wounds Saturday in a rematch against Syracuse, the other team to upset the Blue Devils at home this season.