CHARLOTTE—Twenty-one points, nine rebounds, five steals and four highlight-reel dunks. That was Zion Williamson’s statline Thursday—in the first half alone.
Through all of the talk that Williamson should sit out the rest of the season, head coach Mike Krzyzewski remained persistent that the freshman start would return to the court.
And return he did.
In the quarterfinals of the ACC tournament Thursday, Williamson quickly picked up where he left off with arguably his strongest performance of the season to lead No. 3 seed Duke to an 84-72 victory against sixth-seeded Syracuse at the Spectrum Center. The Spartanburg, S.C., native ignited the crowd with a breakaway slam in the opening minutes that set the tone for the evening as the 6-foot-7 phenom finished with 29 points, 14 rebounds and five steals.
Williamson also broke the program record for the most shots in a single game without a miss, going a perfect 13-for-13 from the field.
“There was no question about it, I knew I was going to be back,” Williamson said. “Everybody has their right to their own opinion, but I knew I was coming back the whole time.”
With Williamson as the focal point of the offense, the Blue Devils found a renewed sense of life after dropping three of their previous six contests. Duke (27-5) stormed out to a 32-15 advantage carried by an interior presence and defensive intensity that was seldom seen in February.
While Williamson dominated, however, his teammates struggled from the field. The rest of the team missed its first six attempts and converted a mere 4-of-18 field goal attempts in the half—Jones and Reddish combined for just one point in the half, as the Orange climbed back into the game.
Frank Howard caught fire as Syracuse (20-13) closed the half on a 13-2 run, and the Duke lead was erased in the opening minutes of the second half when a Buddy Boeheim triple with 13:02 remaining tied the contest at 46.
Like the Blue Devils, the Orange were carried by a single star in the opening 20 minutes—Howard was the lone Syracuse player with more than four points in the half, scoring 15 before the break, and he finished the night with a team-high 28 points, including four 3-pointers to lead the Orange.
“I thought we played great defense for about 12, 14 minutes in the first half, and then when we had some transition, we had about three in a row where we didn't get, we made mistakes, we had a 15-, 17-point lead and that gave them some momentum,” Krzyzewski said. “They put a lot of game pressure on us. Our guys responded in the second half.”
R.J. Barrett picked up some of the scoring slack with 23 points in the contest, but Duke could not find a way to slow down the Syracuse offense early in the half. The Orange drained seven of their first 11 shots out of the locker room and finished the game shooting 48.1 percent from the field.
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A pair of unlikely heroes, however, helped Duke get back on track. Javin DeLaurier hit a pair of free throws and Jordan Goldwire forced a steal before converting an old-fashioned 3-point play to stretch the lead back to six.
“I just tried to make plays,” Goldwire said. “I know what I’m capable of, just doing anything I can to help the team win. I just tried to give Coach whatever he needed me to, just always staying ready.”
A Barrett triple then gave the Blue Devils a 60-51 edge with 9:11 remaining and Syracuse would never get closer than five.
Jones joined the party a few minutes later with a triple, a pair of free throws and a drawn charge to get Duke back ahead by double digits. The Apple Valley, Minn., native finished the game with 15 points and added eight assists for the Blue Devils.
Duke played sloppily throughout the contest, turning the ball over four times in the first three minutes and 18 times in the game. The Blue Devils also could not take advantage of opportunities at the stripe, where they left nine points at the line—including just 2-of-9 from Williamson.
“I wouldn't say [it was a] perfect night. I couldn't really throw a tennis ball into the ocean with my free throws,” Williamson said. “So I don't consider that perfect.”
Duke will need to limit its mistakes against the high-flying North Carolina offense it will face Friday night in the ACC semifinals. The Blue Devils lost the first two renditions of the Tobacco Road rivalry but will look for a different fate with Williamson in the fold for more than 30 seconds this time, as they'll tip off with the second-seeded Tar Heels around 9:30 p.m.
“We’re just excited to be playing tomorrow,” DeLaurier said. “The fact that we’re in the semifinals means that it should be a great game. Carolina is a really talented team, so we’re excited for the opportunity.”