Zion vs. UNC IV? This is the historic NCAA tournament matchup America needs

Duke’s Zion Williamson reacts after a dunk, which accounted for two of his 31 points on Friday night in a victory against North Carolina. (AP)
Duke’s Zion Williamson reacts after a dunk, which accounted for two of his 31 points on Friday night in a victory against North Carolina. (AP)

CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Duke and North Carolina have met 251 times, including 23 matchups in the ACC tournament. They are college basketball’s most enduring rivals, beacons of relevancy, ratings and whisky-fueled Tobacco Road bitterness. Their collective hue – in their different shades – comprises a main artery of the sport’s blue blood.

For all the national titles (11 combined), first-round picks (90) and a pair of active Hall of Fame coaches, there’s only one thing missing from the sport’s most iconic rivalry. In the more than four decades since the NCAA tournament expanded to take at-large teams in 1975, North Carolina and Duke have never met in the NCAA tournament.

After third-seeded Duke outlasted No. 2 North Carolina, 74-73, in a pulsating ACC tournament semifinal on Friday night, the only reasonable reaction is to conjure the fever dream of the first NCAA tournament edition of Duke and North Carolina during the Final Four in Minneapolis.

So consider this a plea to basketball Gods – from Asheville to Cape Hatteras and Wilmington to Boone – that we get Carolina-Duke IV in our lives this postseason. It’ll be the Vineyard Vines Apocalypse, the final frontier of Tobacco Road and would be the most rollicking moment in this rivalry’s existence. Even more improbable, it could make us forget that the NCAA foolishly decided to hold the Final Four in a suburban Dakota.

That’s the only reasonable reaction after Duke and North Carolina dueled for the third time this season and delivered one of the season’s most scintillating games. There were eight lead changes, five ties and every possession for the game’s final 10 minutes felt like there was much more than a No. 1 NCAA tournament seed on the line.

If there was a more competitive, exhilarating and dramatic game in college basketball this season, it certainly wasn’t played on this stage, with these stakes.

“It’s the greatest rivalry on Earth,” said UNC forward Garrison Brooks. “It’s always going to be like that.”

Zion Williamson somehow trumped his 13-for-13 perfection against Syracuse on Thursday night with another virtuoso performance. His biggest play came off a miss, as he used one of his less-heralded other-worldly skills – his second jump – to rise between three Tar Heels in the middle of the lane to score the game-winning put-back with 31 seconds remaining. Zion scored 31 points, grabbed 11 rebounds and helped Duke outlast freshman teammate R.J. Barrett’s two missed free throws with 12.6 seconds remaining. (Duke also overcame Barrett’s occasionally piggish offensive tendencies in the second half, as he borrowed from the J.R. Smith school of shot selection and ball movement).

But the story again was the surge provided by Zion, who was missing in the teams’ two earlier meetings this season with his right knee injury. Williamson again kept the GIF-makers busy, with both a 180-spin dunk and breakaway right-handed tomahawk slam that turned the Spectrum Center here into a den of delirium.

“The guy that’s been hurt came back and put on his Superman jersey again and was incredible,” UNC coach Roy Williams said.

With apologies to the good folks in Tallahassee, the ACC final on Saturday night is going to feel a bit like a jayvee game. No. 4 FSU exposed all of No. 1 Virginia’s vulnerabilities – pace, inability to come back and susceptibility to athleticism – in a 69-59 win that was never much of a game. It could certainly be a close game – like Duke’s buzzer-beater in Tallahassee earlier this year – but it won’t match the energy from Friday.

Duke’s Zion Williamson (L) and RJ Barrett embrace as they leave the court after Duke defeated North Carolina on Friday. (AP)
Duke’s Zion Williamson (L) and RJ Barrett embrace as they leave the court after Duke defeated North Carolina on Friday. (AP)

The nightcap made up for the lack of drama in the first game, as UNC had a possession and chance to win after Barrett’s missed free throws. UNC’s Coby White (4-for-14) took a long step-back shot that caromed off the front rim. He said after the game he slipped driving to the hoop, leading to the awkward attempt.

UNC’s other star freshman, Nassir Little, couldn’t muster the putback on White’s miss. Carolina walked off the floor haunted by its 4-for-27 shooting performance from 3-point range. Williams may have best summed up the proceedings: “If you didn’t care who won the game, it was an exciting game.”

Duke avoided losing three times in a season to UNC for the first time since 1976. And while the possibility of a rematch bubbled up on Twitter throughout the game, few realized the potential history that would accompany it.

“That’s shocking,” UNC athletic director Bubba Cunningham said of the teams having never met in the NCAA tournament. “Just considering how good both teams have been.”

As a Duke staff member walked off the floor on Friday night, he dared the committee to put the Blue Devils and Tar Heels on the opposite side of the bracket so they could meet in the championship game.

The fickle beauty of the NCAA tournament often means that the two best teams don’t reach Monday night. But now that Williamson is back in peak form, it’s clear again that Duke has the most talent in the country. The Blue Devils are headed toward a No. 1 seed and are clearly the team to beat in the NCAA tournament. And now that North Carolina has finished a typical Roy Williams arc of developing into a potent team, there’s a strong argument that UNC is the most well-rounded squad in the country.

“Would I love to see them?” Williamson asked. “Honestly, I mean if we match up against them it’s going to be a great game. But I’m not going to sit here and say, ‘Oh my God, I hope we can play them again.’ I’m not going to start no extra drama. [They’re] a great team. If we see them, we see them.”

Well, Carolina and Duke wouldn’t need manufactured drama from a locker room soundbite. There’s already a near-century of history, the animosity of geographic intimacy and the collision of outsized fan ego.

“It’s the best rivalry in sports,” said Duke guard Tre Jones. “Whatever happens in the tournament, happens. If that’s the biggest rivalry in sports meeting in the tournament, I feel like the fans of the sports world would love that.”

Let’s run it back a fourth time this season, a 24th time in the postseason and 252nd time in history. The first meeting of Duke and UNC in the NCAA tournament is a tangible-enough fever dream to even warm a Dakota suburb.

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