It has been 11 years since the ACC men’s tournament last came to Charlotte.
That one, in 2008, was won by North Carolina. This one, in 2019, might work out the same way.
But the Tar Heels must scale Mt. Zion first.
UNC looked impressive Thursday night in their ACC tournament quarterfinal against Louisville, leading almost the entire way and winning, 83-70. The victory moved UNC to the tournament semifinals at Spectrum Center.
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There the Tar Heels will face Duke — which suddenly has a very healthy and explosive Zion Williamson — at 9:30 p.m. Friday in what will be the most highly anticipated game of this tournament. Virginia and Florida State will play in the undercard semifinal, starting at 7 p.m.
UNC has already beaten Duke twice in the past four weeks, but in the first game Zion played 36 seconds and in the second game not at all. Zion looked fully recovered from his sprained knee Thursday night, however, soaring through the air for one of the most remarkable games in his brief collegiate history in Duke’s 84-72 win over Syracuse.
The freshman and likely No. 1 NBA draft pick this summer scored 29 points, grabbed 14 rebounds, made five steals and hit every single one of his 13 shots (setting an ACC record with that performance).
Most importantly, at least for ESPN’s purposes, Zion delighted nearly everyone with five vicious dunks. The only thing he didn’t do well was shoot free throws, making only 2 of 9 attempts. It all provided much fodder for UNC-Duke 3.0, with Blue Devils fans screaming, “Go to hell, Carolina, go to hell!” as the seconds ticked down in the win over Syracuse.
As for the UNC game, Louisville is a dangerous team, one that is a near-certainty to make the NCAA tournament and one that whipped the Tar Heels by an astounding 21 points on Jan. 12 in Chapel Hill. That was the largest margin of defeat UNC had ever sustained in the Williams era.
But since that loss, the Tar Heels righted the ship. Since that nasty defeat to the Cardinals two months ago, UNC has gone 15-1 over their last 16 games, beaten Duke twice and won a share of the ACC regular-season championship.
Thursday night’s win was led by the Tar Heels’ traditional scoring trio of Luke Maye (19 points), Coby White (19) and Cameron Johnson (14). A pro-Carolina crowd got to cheer early and often as Louisville had a very hard time slowing UNC down.
“We kept running,” Williams said. “We practice running a lot.”
The Tar Heels only led by seven points with 8:26 to go in the game, but then came an 11-0 run over the next four minutes. That stretch included four straight transition baskets for the Tar Heels, electrifying the pro-UNC contingent and signaling the end for the Cardinals.
“I got to the basket,” said White, who also had six assists and powered an effective fast break throughout the game. “I still didn’t hit a jump shot... I’m trying to make the easy play instead of the home-run play.”
Louisville coach Chris Mack had said Wednesday after his team beat Notre Dame to earn the right to face the Tar Heels that he hoped his team could garner some fan support from an unexpected source. With Duke playing immediately after UNC during the Thursday night session, Mack said he was “hoping the Duke fans get excited, too, for the Louisville Cardinals.”
That sort of thing has certainly happened before at the ACC tournament. But the Tar Heels maintained such a firm grasp on the lead that most of the Duke fans in the arena were muted, perhaps content with the fact they were about to see Zion play for the first time in three weeks.
Johnson, the lanky 6-foot-9 shooting guard who was the only Tar Heel to make first-team All-ACC this season, sizzled at the start, scoring 10 of UNC’s first 16 points. White had a strong start, too, while Maye, the senior from Huntersville, did the majority of his damage in the second half and also ended up with a team-high nine rebounds.
“We came out early and punched them in the mouth,” Maye said. “It was great. I love coming back to Charlotte.”
Louisville’s Jordan Nwora, voted the league’s most improved player this season, had 24 points Wednesday night against Notre Dame. But he cooled off in this one, missing a massive follow dunk attempt that would have ignited the crowd. The ball instead slammed off the rim and out of bounds. It was emblematic of Nwora’s night (seven points) and, to a broader extent, Louisville’s.
Said a somewhat stunned Mack after his team allowed 27 fast-break points to the Tar Heels: “(UNC was) as fast as any team I’ve coached against… Give those guys credit. They were shot out of a cannon.”
Zion also looked to be shot out of a cannon against Syracuse — this one pointed straight toward the sky. Only one conclusion to draw from all this: Friday night, and UNC-Duke Part 3, is going to be a whole lot of fun.