R.L. Bynum, Correspondent
DURHAM, N.C. — So much for the theory that North Carolina is just a jump-shooting team that can’t win without 3-pointers.
In the No. 8 Tar Heels’ worst 3-point shooting game of the season, they found an impressive path to victory in transition and inside to overwhelm No. 1 Duke 88–72 on Wednesday night.
Cameron Johnson, who scored 26 points but missed all four of his 3-point attempts, never would have believed that UNC (21–5, 11–2 ACC) could win going 2 of 20 from 3-point range.
“No, no. And, you know, it’s good to get a bad one out and get a win still,” he said.
“I’m excited about how we got easy baskets against them and, at the end of the day, points are points, I’ll take them from anywhere.”
Missed shots, made plays
It was the worst 3-point shooting game (10%) in a win since the 2012–13 opener against Gardner-Webb.
Carolina made the fewest 3-pointers in a victory since the Tennessee game Dec. 11, 2016.
“I think that was definitely an emphasis … to take it away,” Johnson said of Duke trying to stop the Tar Heels’ perimeter game.
“I know I had a couple of tough ones that I feel like I could usually hit. They’re going to try to run us off the line and we’ve got to penetrate and make plays.”
Make plays, they did.
It was almost like a vintage Carolina attack with Luke Maye and Garrison Brooks fueling one of UNC’s best inside games of the season.
As stunning as the Tar Heels’ perimeter struggles was their 62–28 advantage inside.
“It just goes to show how good we can be,” Coby White said.
“We got the ball inside. Luke and Garrison did really well on the inside today. They dominated the paint, so that’s what it came down to, two big-time players.
“[It shows] that we have a lot of weapons and, offensively, we’re hard to guard, If the shots are not falling, we can still go inside. Cam’s mid-range game was on point in the second half, so he hit big shots.”
It wasn’t one of White’s best games, with a career-high six turnovers and only his third single-digit scoring ACC game with nine.
That’s where Seventh Woods’ play off the bench was huge with 5 points, 3 assists and 2 steals.
“I thought Seventh was really, really good,” Coach Roy Williams said.
“Cam misses a layup right before the half and Seventh hustled back and got the steal and took it back down and gave it to Garrison [Brooks] and I think he dunked it right at the buzzer. I thought Seventh gave us a lift.”
Kenny Williams, who missed all three of his 3-point attempts and scored only two points to go with four assists, was one of the few players who thought UNC could win while making only two 3-pointers.
“Yes, no doubt in my mind,” he said.
“We can’t control whether the ball goes in, that’s why we took advantage of what they gave us, and we went inside so easily. We can win so many different ways.”
Zion Williamson’s exit in the first minute of the game certainly helped open up the driving lanes, and UNC took full advantage.
The Tar Heels scored 30 of their first 32 points inside and shot 74% at close range after Duke opponents had shot only 47% before the game.
A lot of those points were from Maye, whose 30-point, 15-rebound game was the only the second 30 and 15 game against Duke.
The other was Billy Cunningham, who collected 31 points and 16 rebounds at Duke on Feb. 23, 1963.
“We were missing a lot of 3s early and I think we just tried to grit it out inside and continue to battle and that was big for us,” Maye said.
“I was just trying to get to my spots and make shots. I thought we did a good job of just attacking.”
The Tar Heels scored 20 consecutive inside points before Maye hit one of UNC’s two 3-pointers with 3:05 left in the first half.
“Well, we wanted to be able to score in the paint, there’s no question,” Coach Roy Williams said.
“Luke made a couple of nice plays getting the ball to other people instead of trying to force it. But in the first half, I told Coby and Cam, between the two of them, they both had one good shot from three and that was it. The rest of them were rushed. Kenny shot one where he barely had a hold of the basketball when he shot it. I thought our threes in the first half were awfully rushed.”
It may have been Brooks’ best overall game of his career, although he had no assists.
His 14 points was an ACC career-high (he only scored more with 20 in the season opener against Wofford), and he added eight rebounds and two steals.
He’s been very efficient of late, making 6 of 7 shots against Duke and 26 of 37 attempts in the last six games.
Brooks said that the Tar Heels’ plan didn’t change much once Williamson went down.
“That was pretty much the emphasis we had for the game: Rebound the ball, get to the basket. We’re supposed to make some threes too, but we really didn’t do that,” Brooks said.
“We just did what we practice every day: Just finishing, catching the ball. That’s what coach is always teaching us, that’s what I did.”
Although Roy Williams didn’t like all of the turnovers (16), it otherwise had to be the style of game he loves.
Not only did the Tar Heels get the ball inside effectively, they were dangerous in transition, scoring 14 fast-break points and 19 points off turnovers.
“We got out and ran the court, ran our lanes and that’s what coach preaches so that’s what we did,” White said.
“Coach told us transition would be the key to this game, so we just got out and ran it.”
The win put UNC in a three-way tie for the ACC lead with Duke and Virginia at 11–2, but it also showed the Tar Heels’ versatility.
That will be tested at home Saturday when Florida State (12–5, 9–4) takes a program-record eight-game ACC win streak to Chapel Hill.
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