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Beyond the arc: Zion Williamson dominates in return as Duke men’s basketball cruises past Syracuse

<p>R.J. Barrett put up 23 points in Duke's win.</p>

R.J. Barrett put up 23 points in Duke's win.

In the Blue Devils’ third 2019 meeting with the Orange, an absolutely breathtaking performance from forward Zion Williamson powered the team to an 84-72 victory and a berth to the quarterfinals of the ACC Tournament. The Blue Zone breaks down three key takeaways, three key stats and looks forward for the Duke squad:

Three key takeaways:

  1. “I’m back”

This quote may be more notably attributed to Michael Jordan when he came out of retirement in 1995, but I don’t think even think His Airness had a return quite like Williamson Thursday night. The consensus No. 1 overall pick in the upcoming NBA Draft had a game for the ages, scoring 29 points on 13-of-13 shooting in addition to 14 rebounds and five steals. It didn’t take long for the ACC Player of the Year to brush off the rust either—Williamson scored the Blue Devils’ first four points, including an electric breakaway slam just two minutes into the contest. It was worth the wait.

2. Turnover frenzy

Duke just couldn’t take care of the basketball Thursday night, turning what should have been a blowout into a close matchup for a good portion of the second-half. The Blue Devils totaled 18 turnovers, led by six from R.J. Barrett and four courtesy of Cam Reddish. But Barrett and Reddish weren’t the only culprits here, as even Williamson coughed the ball up twice and a typically-careful Tre Jones added three giveaways of his own. This may have been an anomaly, but is something that cannot happen again if Duke wants to keep its title hopes alive.

3. Zion needs help

One man can only do so much. While Barrett added a quiet 23 points and Jones added 15 points and eight assists as well, it just seemed like the Blue Devils were a team carried on the back of Williamson. When the 285-pound forward went the first five minutes of the second-half without attempting a field goal, Syracuse took advantage and made it a game—cutting its deficit to as close as two and even tying the contest a few minutes later. Barrett is a fellow All-American, Reddish is another potential top-ten draft pick and Jones a first round selection of his own—it’s time they make Duke a team again rather than a one-man freight train.

Three key stats:

  1. 3

It was honestly difficult deciding which number conveyed Zion’s unbelievable performance the best. His perfect 13-for-13 night represents the most single-game field goals without a miss by any Duke player ever, and those same 13 makes tied the most in a row in a single contest in ACC history. But I think it’s this statistic that truly displays just how historic a night it was—Williamson became just the third Blue Devil in history to post 25 points, 10 rebounds and five steals in a game. The other two are Grant Hill and Christian Laettner. Pretty good company.

2. 23

It seems like Duke has learned from its atrocious January defeat to the Orange, when it hoisted up an atrocious 43 three-point attempts. Because on Thursday that number was just 23, even lower than the 29 the Blue Devils shot in a win over this same Syracuse team three weeks ago. Although Duke sunk just seven of those 23 attempts, being disciplined enough on offense to avoid settling for deep shots—clearly the Blue Devils’ biggest weakness—will go a long way in maxing out this team’s potential.

3. 1

Despite the demand to avoid settling for threes, the Blue Devils still need solid production out of junior forward Jack White, who totaled just one field goal attempt in ten minutes. The team’s co-captain tossed up a single three-point shot—a miss. White also passed up multiple other open looks, showing he clearly has not regained the confidence he needs to be an important NCAA Tournament piece—something Duke desperately needs off the bench.

Looking forward

Next up for the Blue Devils is none other than the rubber match with North Carolina in the semi-finals of the ACC Tournament. This game, in conjunction with a potential ACC Championship Game on Saturday, will likely determine whether Duke is a one-seed in the NCAA Tournament. Mike Krzyzewski has never lost to the Tar Heels three times in one season—let’s see if the Blue Devils can keep that streak going Friday night at 9 p.m.