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UNC vs. Duke: Player of the Game - Cam Johnson

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Carolina’s leading scorer did his thing, but was held in check enough for Duke to escape.

NCAA Basketball: ACC Conference Tournament-Duke vs North Carolina Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

Carolina senior guard Cam Johnson used a scorching-hot start to post a 23-point, five-rebound effort in what is very likely his final game against rival Duke – a heartbreaking 74-73 loss in the ACC tournament semifinals last night. The sharpshooter missed his last five 3-point attempts, but he did plenty of work early and late to give the Heels a prime opportunity for their first three-game sweep of the Devils since the 1975-76 season.

After eight minutes of play, Johnson had outscored the whole Duke team 14-13. He started by tracking a loose ball rolling down the left side of the court and drilling a three-pointer for UNC’s first points of the contest. Then on the next possession, Johnson made a long two-point shot to give the Heels a 5-4 lead that they wouldn’t relinquish until the final minute of the first half.

One minute later, the graduate transfer canned his second and last long ball before finally missing a deep attempt on the next trip down the court. Johnson scored six more points in a variety-pack spurt – one layup, two free throws, and a midrange jumper – to raise his tally to 14 before the second media timeout.

As the nature of the game changed from a free-flowing track meet to a half-court slog, Johnson was held scoreless until earning a trip to the line with 1:36 remaining before halftime. He made both freebies for a 42-39 Carolina lead before the Devils knotted the score at 44 going into the break. The Heels’ largest lead had been 29-17 at the nine-minute mark.

UNC’s leading scorer was then limited to only one shot attempt over the first nine-plus minutes of the second half. Part of it was because Duke’s 6’2’’, 180-pound freshman point guard Tre Jones started to play suffocating defense on the 6’9’’ Johnson, a mismatch the Heels didn’t seem particularly interested in exploiting down low.

But Johnson’s dunk off a beautiful feed from junior guard Brandon Robinson gave the Heels their first lead of the second half at 59-58. He then made it a 65-63 edge on a jumper again assisted by Robinson with 8:22 to play.

Another lead change came courtesy of Johnson with about three and a half minutes remaining, when the silky smooth guard drove to the hoop for a layup plus a blocking foul. On a night when Carolina missed only four free throws but a couple of crucial ones late, Johnson calmly swished the foul shot for a 5-of-5 mark and a 69-67 lead.

Johnson’s next field goal attempt was one Carolina fans will probably remember for a long while. After the Heels failed to box out Duke’s Zion Williamson on a put-back that handed the Devils a one-point lead with 31 seconds left, Carolina went to Johnson on the left side. He tried a step-back three-pointer that looked good but rimmed out, which represented UNC’s second-to-last chance at a monumental win.

Johnson did commit three of Carolina’s eight turnovers, but he came to play from the jump and gave the Heels a huge energy and scoring boost that they just couldn’t maintain. Then towards the end, he did his best to try to come to the rescue and pull the game out for UNC. Johnson finished 8-of-18 from the field in 38 minutes.

Senior forward Luke Maye posted a similar mark, making 7 of 18 shots to score 14 points along with 13 rebounds in 34 minutes. He played OK, but wasn’t quite well-rounded enough for Player of the Game honors. Maye also misfired on a big free throw with under three minutes to go with UNC up 71-67 before the refs fouled out sophomore forward Garrison Brooks on another dubious call to put the Devils right back in business. (Brooks deserves huge praise for his defensive effort against Williamson.)

Senior guard Kenny Williams had nine points, four rebounds, and three assists in 39 minutes. He probably played even better than those stats suggest, including great defense as usual on Duke freshman forward RJ Barrett, but he again struggled with his shot and left a few open looks on the table that proved critical.

Freshman point guard Coby White added 11 points (4-of-14 shooting), five rebounds, four assists, and three steals with three turnovers in 38 minutes. He missed an awkward last-second long two-point shot that could’ve won the game after a slip stopped his intended drive to the basket.

In the end, a back-and-forth battle that began with Johnson’s frenzy turned out sour for the Heels. It was the seventh blown double-digit lead against Duke in 36 total meetings under coach Roy Williams. But it was oh-so-close to a seventh win in the last 10 matchups with the Devils.