CHARLOTTE—Six days ago in Chapel Hill, Zion Williamson made a prediction—albeit not a very bold one: He, along with the rest of his teammates, would get another shot at North Carolina.
And after playing just 33 seconds against the Tar Heels a little less than a month ago, Williamson won't be either in the training room nor on the bench for Part III of the Tobacco Road rivalry.
Third-seeded Duke will meet No. 2 seed North Carolina in the ACC tournament semifinals for a third consecutive season as the Blue Devils are out for revenge following a regular-season series sweep by the Tar Heels. Duke and North Carolina will have more than just a spot in the title game on the line when they tip at approximately 9:30 p.m. Friday at the Spectrum Center—the winner will almost certainly lock up a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament and also likely secure their spot in Columbia, S.C., for the first two rounds.
"It was very unfortunate how it turned out the first time," Williamson said of missing out on the teams' first two matchups. "But I’m excited to finally be part of the rivalry—one of the biggest rivalries ever."
Rewind to two seasons ago, it was the Blue Devils that came into the semifinals with all the momentum. Duke (27-5) began its postseason on Wednesday in Brooklyn as the No. 5 seed, edging out Clemson and Louisville before surging late to come from behind and win 93-83 against the Tar Heels en route to the 2017 ACC tournament title.
Last year was a near carbon copy, just with things reversed. North Carolina, the No. 6 seed, cruised past Miami and Syracuse to set up a late-night matchup with Duke, and the Tar Heels went on to win 74-69 before falling to Virginia in the title game the next night.
This time around, both teams will enter the semifinals with just one game under their belts—North Carolina fended off a pesky seventh-seeded Louisville side 83-70 in the first half of Thursday night's doubleheader before the Blue Devils eased past Syracuse in the nightcap.
And for the first time in history, a set of conference tournament semifinals will feature three teams ranked in the top five of the AP poll. The Cavaliers, the ACC's top seed, and Tar Heels are currently Nos. 2 and 3, respectively, with Duke at No. 5. Plus, fourth-seeded Florida State isn't far behind, coming in at No. 12 in the season's penultimate set of rankings.
But the Blue Devils aren't focused on the hoopla or the chance to play for a 21st conference tournament title Saturday night. Their attention is squarely on the one ACC team they have yet to beat this season.
"Although Zion was out, they still ran their plays," Tre Jones said of North Carolina. "They were able to execute versus us and do things on the defensive end that took us out of what we wanted to do. We’ll be able to watch that, and with Zion being back tomorrow, that’s big for us, but be able to gameplan and go into it like it’s another game."
Certainly, the matchup that everyone will have their eyes on is the battle between grizzled senior and freshman phenom. With Williamson absent, Tar Heel forward Luke Maye took it to the Blue Devils to the tune of 30 points and 15 rebounds in the series' first meeting of 2019.
Maye then dominated again on the glass last Saturday, pulling down 16 rebounds—including five on the offensive end—and making a crucial block on R.J. Barrett in the final two minutes despite scoring just seven points.
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What will also be intriguing to see, however, is how Coach K and Duke try to keep North Carolina point guard Coby White in check. The freshman lit it up during the Tar Heels' critical run in Chapel Hill, but went scoreless in the final 7:30 after the Blue Devils opted to not switch on ball screens and instead keep Jones locked on White.
"He just has a quick shot, so we’ve got to be there," Jones said. "Don’t let him get a good sight on the rim, because he’ll let it go."
With Williamson seemingly at full strength, though, there's plenty of reason to think this Duke-North Carolina matchup has the potential to be different in more ways than one.
"[Zion] just brings an amazing sense of energy," junior Javin DeLaurier said. "We’ve got a team full of fighters, obviously, but having that energy back is nice, I’m not going to lie."