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Five observations from Duke men's basketball's first half against Syracuse


Freshman Zion Williamson returned with force against Syracuse in Duke's first game of the ACC tournament, throwing down multiple first-half slams, and scoring 21 points.

CHARLOTTE—A magnificent first half for Zion Williamson after he missed five games with a mild knee sprain has No. 3 seed Duke well on its way to a date with North Carolina in Friday's semifinals, leading No. 6 seed Syracuse 34-28 at the Spectrum Center. Here are five observations from the first 20 minutes.

Player of the half: Zion Williamson

The ACC Player of the Year delivered his best half yet in his highly-anticipated return from a three-week absence, reintroducing himself with a steal and breakaway dunk just two minutes into the game. Williamson added another dunk, knocked down a 3-pointer from the wing and has 21 points on 9-of-9 shooting. He has also led Duke on the glass with nine boards, frustrating the Orange with his physicality and drawing several fouls, and has five steals on defense, too. Williamson has only been mortal when he goes to the free-throw line, where he is 2-of-7.

Sizzling in transition

Syracuse hasn't been able to handle the Blue Devils' ball pressure spearheaded by Tre Jones and Williamson, turning it over 11 times and giving Duke several fast-break buckets off steals during a 14-2 run to open up a 23-11 lead. The most spectacular play of the half came when Jones leaped to snare a one-handed steal at midcourt and bounced it down the floor in one motion to R.J. Barrett, who quickly tossed a lob to Williamson for an alley-oop dunk.

Missing the middle

The Blue Devils were sloppy at times as well against Syracuse's 2-3 zone, turning it over on their first two possessions and struggling to get the ball into the middle of the zone when they have to settle into a halfcourt offense. Duke started to settle in as the game progressed, but still has 11 giveaways at the break.

Big man benched

With Marques Bolden sidelined for the tournament due to an MCL sprain, 7-foot-2 big man Paschal Chukwu figured to be a potential matchup problem for Duke. But the Blue Devils neutralized him by sending him to the bench early on for most of the half, drawing two quick fouls in the first 3:03. Forward Marek Dolezaj also picked up two fouls for the Orange before the under-16 media timeout.

Lacking a playmaker

Syracuse leading scorer Tyus Battle is in street clothes on the bench after suffering a bruised hip last week, and the Orange's offense has been stagnant without him. Syracuse is shooting 45.8 percent from the field and has one player with more than five points.