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UNC topples Duke; Blue Devils expect Zion back for ACC tournament

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North Carolina's Coby White drives to the basket against Duke during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in Chapel Hill, N.C., Saturday, March 9, 2019. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

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By PATRICK MASON
Sports Writer

Saturday, March 9, 2019

CHAPEL HILL — The trio of North Carolina seniors kicked off the comeback. Freshman Coby White made sure it stood.

No. 3 North Carolina was ruthless from deep in the second half, and used that precision shooting with a mix of bullying plays at the rim to earn a 79-70 win over visiting No. 4 Duke on Saturday.

In erasing a first-half deficit just seconds into the second half, the Tar Heels went on to built their largest leads of the game and held off a poised Duke team that chipped away but couldn’t quite reel in the deficit in the regular-season finale for both teams.

“They have that blend of great old, and great young,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “It keeps them bouncing back every year.”

North Carolina (26-5, 16-2 ACC) won a share of the conference title with Virginia with the win, and completed the regular-season sweep of the Blue Devils (26-5, 14-4). The victory gave the Tar Heels the second seed in the upcoming ACC tournament, while Duke settled for the third seed.

Virginia grabbed the top seed in the tournament with its win over Louisville earlier in the day.

UNC’s other win over Duke came on Feb. 20 in Durham, in a game where Duke lost its top player in Zion Williamson, who hasn’t returned to the floor since injuring his knee. But Krzyzewski had encouraging news regarding the future NBA lottery pick when he announced after the game that Williamson will participate in full-contact drills on Monday, the final hurdle to clear before getting back onto the floor.

If all goes well, Krzyzewski said, he expects Williamson to play on Thursday in the Blue Devils’ ACC tournament opener.

“Hopefully, I think we’ll get Zion back for Thursday,” Krzyzewski said. “He worked out this morning, again no contact, but Monday there will be. Hopefully we’ll get a couple good days of practice where he can play 5-on-5. The way he looks right now, it’s just a matter of getting into game shape and going forward.”

As for Saturday’s game, the fifth full game without Williamson, Duke led for much of the first half as Cam Reddish scored 17 of his 23 points in the first 20 minutes. But the lead never grew to double figures, and the Blue Devils couldn’t find separation and took a 40-38 lead into halftime.

Out of the break, the Tar Heels broke off a scoring run at the start of the second half, fueled by its three seniors playing their final game at the Smith Center, to erase the first-half deficit. Luke Maye, Cam Johnson and Kenny Williams combined to score the first 12 points of the second half.

Then White, the Tar Heels’ point guard, made sure the Blue Devils would have an agonizing task in finding their way back from a double-digit deficit as the high-scoring freshman took over the game.

“Coby’s flurry did that,” Krzyzewski said of how UNC pulled away, before sharing the rest of his thought with a grin. “Shame on him for doing that. He shouldn’t have done that.”

White scored 12 of UNC’s 17 points during a stretch midway through the second half, a period where UNC shot 6-for-8 from 3-point range while opening its largest lead of the game at 75-60. The final touches of that lead were built by an 11-0 run.

“Coby had a hell of a game, especially in the second half. What they’ve done with him is given him the freedom to do that, and once he feels it he knows he has support of his teammates and coaching staff and that gives him more confidence,” Krzyzewski said. “He’s big, he can shoot, he’s talented. He’s one of the best players in the league, he’s going to be an NBA player.”

White led the Tar Heels with 21 points as one of four players to score in double figures. He and Williams — who was next with 18 points — each made four 3-pointers in the win. Johnson scored 14 points, and Garrison Brooks added 10.

Maye, who scored a team-high 30 points in the first meeting with Duke, finished with seven points, but added game-highs in rebounds (16) and assists (7).

Despite Duke’s 15-point deficit, it didn’t go away. The Blue Devils went on a 10-0 run, capped by an RJ Barrett 3-pointer to cut the UNC lead to 75-70, but the Blue Devils didn’t score over the final 2:19 in the loss.

Barrett scored 17 of his game-high 26 points in the second half. And while Duke’s scoring drought ended its comeback attempt, it paled in comparison to UNC’s stretch without points.

The Tar Heels didn’t score a basket over the final 6:47, and endured its own scoring drought last lasted more than six minutes. It wasn’t until Johnson and Brooks hit a pair of free throws apiece in the final minute that UNC pushed its lead back to breathable.

“We had to stay focused,” White said. “We had to stay focused on the big goal. And for me, I just feel like I’m getting more comfortable, and I think when I play good on defense I have good offensive performances.”

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