Last night, the Tar Heels closed out the regular season with a 79-70 win against the Duke Blue Devils. In the second match of this heated rivalry, and the first game that Duke had ample time to prepare to play without Zion Williamson, the two teams took it to each other for a large portion of the game with the Heels finding a way to pull away about midway through the second half. With the win, the Tar Heels are officially co-ACC champions, and have completed their first regular season sweep of Duke since 2008-09.
With the completed sweep against Duke also came a bonus perk: Joe Lunardi now has UNC as the fourth number one seed for the NCAA tournament. However, they still have one more test to go: finding a way to survive the ACC Tournament, and potentially playing a Zion-led Duke team in the semifinals. That is, of course, if they survive round one. All of this is of course a conversation for another day, so for now, let’s take a look at a few things that we learned about the Tar Heels in their final regular season game.
Kenny Williams may have regained his confidence
For what seems like an eternity now, Kenny Williams has had a great deal of difficulty getting his three-point shots to fall. We’ve seen shooting droughts happen to the best of Carolina’s players in the past, so this isn’t anything new. However, something about this particular drought made it seem like we would never see even a glimpse of the Kenny Williams we knew from last year’s team again. Well, thankfully that version of Williams showed up last night, and boy was it fun to watch.
Williams finished the game with 18 points, 6 rebounds, and 3 assists. He shot at a 46.6% clip from the field, and made 57.1% of his three-pointers. Yes, you read that correctly: Kenny Williams, who was shooting 28% from deep for the season so far, made 57.1% of his three-pointers. If there was anything to love about what transpired during the game, that was arguably at the top of the list.
After making his first three-pointer it was tough to believe that Williams would find a way to catch fire in the manner that he did. However, he immediately made another one on the next possession, and that’s when it became clear that the basket was finally looking bigger than the inside of a Cheerio. Williams was on a mission to make his final night in the Dean Smith Center a memorable one, and he did it in a big way.
So what does this mean for Williams, and what does this mean for the team going forward? The semi-skeptical answer is that it’s hard to really know what it means until Thursday night in Charlotte. However, if he has finally rejuvenated his perimeter shooting, the Tar Heels have become a much scarier team going into tournament season.
Carolina showed why being multi-faceted pays off
Whether by design or not, UNC was unable to do as much damage in the paint against Duke as they were able to in the previous meeting. In the first game, Carolina was able to score a staggering 62 of their 88 points in the paint. In last night’s game, they only managed to score 32 points in that department. Credit to Duke’s defense for making the proper adjustments, but this year’s team has proven that they can win in many different ways, and they proved it once again in this win.
As many will recall, one of the reasons that the Heels had to attack the paint so much in the first game was because three-point shots just weren’t falling. They finished the game only making 2 of their 20 attempts, which was good for a cringe-worthy 10%. Thankfully, things went much, much better in the Dean Dome — UNC made 12 of their 31 attempts from deep, nearly doubling the number of threes made by Duke. Earlier I mentioned that Kenny Williams had an awesome shooting night, but Coby White was also a big contributor, shooting 40% from behind the arc.
When threes weren’t going in, the Heels were also getting a respectable amount of second chance points off of rebounds. The Blue Devils allowed a season-high 22 points off of second chance points, which may or may not have been a result of losing their starting center in Marques Bolden. However, Luke Maye would argue that his 16 rebounds in the first game, and 15 rebounds in last night’s game says that the injury to Bolden had nothing to do with those second chance opportunities. Make of all of that what you will.
The most dangerous teams in college basketball are the teams that have multiple ways to beat you. Carolina has displayed almost too many ways to get wins in conference play, and it is becoming harder and harder to see how they can be stopped when they are playing at a high level. Duke has arguably learned this lesson harder than anybody in the ACC, and it will be very interesting to see if the Heels can pull off a three-peat should these two teams play one more time in the postseason. On the larger scale of things, however, it’s safe to say that the Tar Heels are officially ready to take on the NCAA tournament.
The defense has performed at an elite level against the Blue Devils
Let’s just start this section by getting this out of the way: the Tar Heels have owned Duke on the defensive side of the ball this season. Carolina held Duke to 35% shooting from the field in Durham and only allowed them to shoot 21% from three. In last night’s game, the Heels managed to hold them to 34% shooting from the field and 25% from deep, holding the Blue Devils to a very similar clip as the previous game. However, how it happened last night was very different, and also very impressive.
In the first half, Duke came out on a mission to prove that they were able to get the job done without their star player. They shot as high as 50% from the field, and were getting some threes to fall themselves that weren’t falling in the previous game. Cam Reddish specifically looked rather impressive, scoring 17 of his 23 points and got some shots to go down from deep. The Blue Devils finished the half shooting 47%, and it was really hard to feel like much would change in the second half.
However, things not only changed in the second half, but they did in a very big way. The Heels managed to hold Duke to 23% shooting and 20% from three. Carolina was doing a great job in just about every phase on defense: getting blocks, getting steals, forcing turnovers, and overall just making things very frustrating for a team that has usually been the beneficiaries of their own excellent defense all year long. Down the stretch Duke scored zero points in the last 2:19 of the game. Their saving grace was a few foul calls that went their way, but ultimately the Heels’ defense and a couple of free throws of their own kept things from getting way too interesting.
If there is any lesson that was learned by last year’s team it is that your defense has to be stellar come tournament time just in case your shots aren’t falling. It appears that this year’s team very much understands the notion, as their amazing defensive performance in the second half helped mask the fact that they didn’t score a field goal in the last 6:47 of the contest.
The Heels are playing some really good basketball on both sides of the ball at just the right time, and now the real fun begins. Charlotte, the Tar Heels are coming.