Luke DeCock

Age before beauty: UNC seniors exit with sweep of Duke

UNC seniors honored before game against Duke

North Carolina seniors Cameron Johnson, Luke Maye and Kenny Williams were honored before the Tar Heels' victory over the Duke Blue Devils at the Smith Center in Chapel Hill, N.C., Saturday, March 9, 2019.
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North Carolina seniors Cameron Johnson, Luke Maye and Kenny Williams were honored before the Tar Heels' victory over the Duke Blue Devils at the Smith Center in Chapel Hill, N.C., Saturday, March 9, 2019.

All anyone could talk about was the freshmen, especially the one in street clothes on the Duke bench. Even for North Carolina, the flash and flair of Coby White and Nas Little captured the imagination more than their steadier older teammates, never mind the instant celebrity of Zion Williamson or R.J. Barrett.

Basketball is a young man’s game, college basketball increasingly so, and Carolina’s lineup is backloaded with senior citizens, relatively speaking, who don’t raise the blood pressure of NBA scouts like their more juvenile peers.

After taking such varied routes to get to this point – Cam Johnson transferring from Pittsburgh, Luke Maye an in-state legacy walk-on turned record-setting star, Kenny Williams headed for Virginia Commonwealth at one point – they ended up at the same spot Saturday, giving their senior-night speeches after a sweep of the season series of Duke, 79-70.

Even as White outplayed Duke’s freshmen – a team-high 21 points for the electric guard – North Carolina’s win was was the revenge of the olds, a victory for prolonged growth and the wisdom of maturity. When Duke made its late run and the Tar Heels went almost six minutes without a point, Johnson made the free throws to put the game away.

“It means everything,” Johnson said.

North Carolina players cut down the net after the Tar Heels defeated Duke at the Smith Center in Chapel Hill, N.C., Saturday, March 9, 2019. The win gave the Tar Heels a share of the ACC regular season championship.

What less would you expect in a week when Mike Krzyzewski praised one-time enfant terrible and bitter rival Rasheed Wallace’s appointment as a high-school coach? Time flies man, does it ever.

Maybe if Williamson, as bright a comet to streak across this particular sky in a generation, had played for Duke it would have been different. The Blue Devils clearly aren’t the same team without him. But even with him, they lack the experience the Tar Heels have in excess. They lack the seniors who combined to score the first 12 points of the second half, a pivotal stretch where North Carolina took control of the game.

Virginia’s win over Louisville earlier Saturday deprived Duke and North Carolina of the real stakes, with the Cavaliers claiming the No. 1 seed in Charlotte and the No. 2 seed hanging in the balance, even as the Tar Heels still took a share of the regular-season honors for the third time in four years.

That did, at least, have the salutary effect of setting up a potential rematch in Friday’s ACC semifinals, which unlike the two games this season will offer the tantalizing possibility of a full appearance by Williamson, whose absence from the court if not the Duke bench represented his sixth straight missed game since his bizarre exit less than a minute into the first meeting 2 ½ weeks ago.

The conditions leading up to this game were unusual to say the least, with Williamson’s uncertain status dominating everyone’s attention, just as Duke’s freshman stars had overshadowed North Carolina’s veterans all season. Still, only the Tar Heels could keep pace with Virginia in the standings – if not on the court, where the Cavaliers won the only meeting while the Blue Devils beat Virginia twice.

Roy Williams addresses the media following the Tar Heels' win over the Blue Devils on Saturday, March 9, 2019 at the Smith Center in Chapel Hill, N.C.

Duke was bolstered by the sudden reappearance of Cam Reddish, a complete nonfactor in Duke’s near-miss against Wake Forest earlier this week but an aggressive, attacking force in the first half against the Tar Heels – especially after R.J. Barrett spent the night in foul trouble thanks almost entirely to the charge-taking abilities of Williams, whose defense was as important as his scoring. Reddish and Barrett combined for 49, the only Duke players in double figures.

It wasn’t Maye’s best offensive game – he had been an unstoppable force in Cameron – but he had 15 rebounds to go with his seven points and Williams and Johnson were more than up to the challenge, combining for 32 points.

Krzyzewski even bestowed praise upon Maye that he last previously used on Kyle Singler, who somewhere must have felt a great disturbance in the force.

“What does he play, what position? He plays winner,” Krzyzewski said. “He’s just a winner.”

Perhaps seeing a senior-dominated team clinch a share of the ACC regular-season title sent Krzyzewski on an unexpected trip into the past. He also mentioned Nolan Smith, who along with the unmentioned-but-inadvertently-reference Singler was on the last Duke team to share a regular-season title, in 2010. (So long ago, it was shared with … Maryland!)

There was a wistful tinge to the way he talked about North Carolina’s seniors, a way of life he years ago abandoned in pursuit of elite one-and-done talent, out of necessity in his mind. He won a title that way in 2015, but something about these Tar Heels led him to 2010.

“They have that type of team,” Krzyzewski said, “still that blend of great old and really great young.”

Williams and Maye were both aboard for the run to the 2017 national title, Williams as an injured passenger, Maye as the surprise hero against Kentucky. Johnson, at that point, was suffering through a sub-.500 season in the final throes of the Kevin Stallings era.

It’s an eclectic trio, one brought together in large part by the recruiting woes North Carolina suffered while laboring under the threat of NCAA sanctions. Roy Williams joked again that if he could have gotten the kids Duke and Kentucky got in 2015 or so, he would have taken them. But he wasn’t joking about what he ended up with instead.

“I’m fairly confident, if you give me really good kids, we’ll play really hard and we’re going to win some games that maybe we shouldn’t,” Roy Williams said. “Kenny and Luke, neither of those guys was in the top 100. Luke sits in my office and says ‘You’re never going to have anybody work as hard as I’m going to work. Kenny gave us a second chance. I’ve thanks Shaka (Smart) two or three times for him leaving.”

Despite the buzz around White and Little, both of whom may also have played their final game in Chapel Hill, this has always been these seniors’ team, its fate their legacy.

The freshmen may have outscored them, all of them on both sides, but they couldn’t outshine them.

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Sports columnist Luke DeCock has covered the Summer Olympics, the Final Four, the Super Bowl and the Carolina Hurricanes’ Stanley Cup. He joined The News & Observer in 2000 to cover the Hurricanes and the NHL before becoming a columnist in 2008. A native of Evanston, Ill., he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania and has won multiple national and state awards for his columns and feature writing while twice being named North Carolina Sportswriter of the Year.