It was the hottest ticket in the country. If you spanned the sideline you’d see professional athletes, movie directors, actors, rappers, business moguls and even a former President of the United States all on hand to watch the heavyweight bout between #1 Duke and #8 North Carolina. Before tip-off the atmosphere was electric, with everyone in a packed Cameron Indoor excited for what they’d hoped would be one of the best basketball games this season. But those expectations quickly came to a halt when one of the best players in the country, Zion Williamson, went down with a knee injury after his sneaker randomly exploded within the first minute of the game.
Zion Williamson’s Nike shoe just exploded on national TV!
— Ballislife.com (@Ballislife) February 21, 2019
With all of the air sucked out of Cameron, the Heels would go on a 8-3 run over the next 2 minutes and never look back – eventually defeating the Blue Devils 88-72. But one question that will always be asked when referring to this game…Would the outcome have been different with Zion on the floor?
Tar Heel fans will say it doesn’t matter – An L is an L, and with all the hype that RJ Barrett, Cam Reddish and Tre Jones have gotten, the Blue Devils should’ve found a way to win. Duke fans will say – How can you possibly not consider how Zion’s presence in the post would’ve affected the game?
This isn’t the first time the Blue Devils have played without Zion. With 1:23 remaining in the 1st half of Duke’s game against Florida State last month, Williamson went down with an eye injury and wouldn’t return in the 2nd. Although he wasn’t out as long as he was Wednesday night, the Blue Devils found a way to win without him. But there’s no question that the Tar Heels wouldn’t have been able to eat in the post to the tune of 62 points (compared to 28 for Duke) if Zion’s massive 285 pound frame was there helping defend it.
“It’s crazy that the two games we’ve lost here, something’s happened in the first part of the game,” Coach K said after the loss. “The preparation that you would have for the game is obviously based on the players being there, especially [Zion] and RJ [Barrett], who are the key guys. It puts everyone in a state of trying to figure it out when you’re playing an outstanding team. That’s not a good situation.”
“When the big fella goes out of the game it changes a lot of stuff for them,” Roy Williams said. “Zion Williamson – I have never seen anything like him. It was a huge blow for them and having that happen during the course of the game you don’t have time to prepare for it.”
But all of this shouldn’t take anything away from the Tar Heels. In addition to outscoring the Blue Devils 62-28 in the post, UNC had 20 assists to Duke’s 9, forced 20 turnovers, out rebounded the Blue Devils, shot an incredibly efficient 65% from inside the 3-point arc, out-hustled Duke and got out faster in transition. Simply put, UNC smelled blood in the water after Williamson went down and took full advantage.
“We were knocked back after that injury; you could see it, Coach K added. “[North Carolina] went ahead and played well. Their two really veteran guys played great. [Luke] Maye and Cameron Johnson were sensational.”
So, who’s right? The Duke fan who says things would be different if Zion were on the court or the UNC fan who says a win is a win? They’re both right. Zion’s absence shouldn’t take anything away from the Tar Heels’ victory, but you can’t deny that having one of the best players in the country on the floor would change the complexity of the game. Guess we’ll just have to see what happens when these two meet up again in a couple of weeks.
- Freshman RJ Barrett recorded his sixth double-double with 33 points to match his career high and 16 rebounds. He played all 40 minutes.
- Barrett’s 33 points were a Duke freshman record in a game versus North Carolina. The previous record was 30 points by Jabari Parker on March 8, 2014.
- Freshman Cam Reddish set a career high with 27 points. Three of his seven 20-point games have come over the last five games.
- Luke Maye scored 30 points and had a game-high 15 rebounds. It was his third career 30/15 game.
- Cameron Johnson made a career-high 11 field goals and scored 26 points.
- Carolina is now 8-10 against Duke when the Blue Devils are ranked No. 1 in the AP poll. This was Carolina’s fourth win at Cameron Indoor Stadium against a No. 1-ranked Duke team.