Williamson back for No. 5 Duke’s third crack at No. 3 UNC
Rivals Duke and North Carolina will go at it again for the third time in barely more than three weeks Friday night.
Fifth-ranked Duke looks closer to full health for this one after freshman forward Zion Williamson’s sterling return.
The Atlantic Coast Conference tournament semifinal matchup in Charlotte, N.C., will come just 24 hours after Williamson shot 13-for-13 from the field on the way to 29 points against Syracuse in the quarterfinals Thursday night.
“We have Zion back, so it was just a lot of fun,” Duke teammate RJ Barrett said.
Third-ranked North Carolina, the tournament’s No. 2 seed, swept the regular-season series from Duke, which holds the No. 3 seed. The first matchup Feb. 20 was notable because Williamson went out in the opening minute with a knee sprain.
“I know I was ready to come back a few days ago,” Williamson said Thursday. “I got some reps in with the team. But I would like to say this, there was never any pressure for me to rush back when I wasn’t ready.”
Williamson didn’t play again until the Syracuse game, missing more than three weeks and six games. In between, he was named the ACC Player of the Year. His flaws Thursday came at the foul line, where he shot 2-for-9.
“I wanted to be out there every game,” Williamson said after Duke’s 84-72 victory over the Orange. “You see me, I see my brothers out there battling, and I just wanted to go to war with them.”
Duke (27-5) and North Carolina (27-5) are meeting in the ACC tournament semifinals for the third year in a row. They split the past two years in the postseason.
“You got to continue to play and continue to fight because the other team is doing the same thing,” North Carolina senior Luke Maye said. “I think we’re going to try to do that (Friday).”
This will be the first ACC tournament semifinal with two top-five teams.
North Carolina won 83-70 against Louisville in the quarterfinals.
Even before the third matchup with Duke was set, Tar Heels coach Roy Williams was asked about the possibility.
“We are here, and if they bring the Golden State Warriors out, we’ll play,” Williams said. “If it’s Duke, we’ll play. If it’s Syracuse, we’ll play. I’m being honest. I care about how our team does.”
North Carolina has won eight games in a row — including two against Duke in that span.
“I think we got better, and if you look, and I really believe this, I believe almost all of our teams have gotten better down the stretch, the second half of the conference season,” Williams said.
Duke is without junior center Marques Bolden for the ACC tournament. He sprained his left knee Saturday night at North Carolina, when the Tar Heels won 79-70 in the teams’ second meeting of the season.
Duke and North Carolina both have 101 all-time victories in ACC tournament play, the most of any school in the event.
The winner plays Saturday night in the title game against the winner of the first semifinal between top-seeded Virginia and fourth-seeded Florida State.
–Field Level Media
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