COLUMBIA, S.C.—Duke trailed 12-5, was tied at 16 with 9:55 left in the first half and led 31-27 at halftime.
Those weren’t scores from the Blue Devils’ 74-73 nail-biting win against North Carolina in the ACC tournament semifinal one week ago. Rather, they were from the early minutes of Duke’s first-round matchup against North Dakota State Friday.
Then, out of the locker room, Zion Williamson came to life.
Williamson hit a layup, threw down a slam and somehow kept a loose ball alive before wiggling his way to the basket as the top-ranked Blue Devils went on a 30-8 run, putting away any chance of a historic upset, on their way to an 85-62 victory against the 16th-seeded Bison at Colonial Life Arena to kick off their NCAA tournament run.
“We started out just taking jump shots and not working the ball. Once you get behind, there's the confidence level of the other team and the pressure of the game. I thought our defense then picked up for the rest of the game after about 10 minutes,” head coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “In the second half, we played just beautiful basketball for those 12 minutes. It was a good game for us and we applaud them.”
Playing in his home state for the first time since joining Duke—less than 100 miles away from his hometown of Spartanburg, S.C.—the 6-foot-7 forward continued his circus act to the tune of 25 points with an efficient 12-of-16 shooting performance. Williamson added a few highlight-reel slams and swatted a ball a dozen rows deep into the stands in the process.
Classmate R.J. Barrett shook off a dismal 1-for-6 start with a 16-point second half, and finished the contest with a team-high 26 points on 9-of-18 shooting, setting the program record for a freshman in an NCAA tournament debut.
“We were very excited because, especially for me, I remember watching March Madness, like live-streaming it in high school and middle school, just watching the intense games and telling myself I was going to be a part of that,” Williamson said of his first NCAA tournament game. “Last night, when I was sitting in my hotel room, I'm like, ‘Wow, I'm actually here.’ It's very exciting. But you've got to put the excitement aside and just go out there and try to get the win.”
Despite being one of the most explosive offenses in the nation for much of the season, the Blue Devils’ recent inability to shoot and stagnation on the court plagued them once again Friday out of the gates. Duke (30-5) could barely get a shot to fall from the perimeter in the opening stanza, starting 1-for-7 beyond the arc and allowing the Bison to open up a seven-point advantage in the opening five minutes.
With Cam Reddish unable to get anything to go offensively in the first half—Reddish missed his first six attempts and finished with 12 points— Krzyzewski turned to his defensive sparkplug Jordan Goldwire less than six minutes into the contest and the Blue Devil turnaround began.
Goldwire’s defensive energy ignited a 15-4 Duke run, and his on-ball pressure was a major contributor in the Blue Devils’ ability to force eight first-half turnovers and 13 throughout the contest. With the team laboring from the perimeter, the Norcross, Ga., native proved he could add value on the offensive end. Goldwire knocked down a triple with 61 seconds remaining before intermission—just the team’s second of the game—as Duke opened up what was then its largest lead at 31-25.
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“He's part of our rotation, and he's earned that, starting with the Louisville game,” Krzyzewski said. “He's a very good athlete, and he plays defense on and off the ball, tough. He does not turn the ball over, makes simple plays, and then he hit a big three. That's added. He's a valuable guy for us right now, but he's earned everything…. Also, what he's earned is the confidence. He has confidence in himself, and he knows that we have confidence in him.”
Defensively, the Blue Devils had no answer for Bison guard Vinnie Shahid, who lit up Duke for 15 first-half points on 6-for-10 shooting from the field. Tre Jones experienced rare lapses on the court and struggled to keep the 5-foot-11 guard in front of him. After Jones shut down some of the nation’s best, including Ky Bowman and Shamorie Ponds, Shahid finished with 20 in the contest for NDSU (19-16).
Freshman Joey Baker finally scored the first points of his career on a triple with a minute remaining. Baker played in just his third game Friday after head coach Mike Krzyzewski burned his redshirt against Syracuse Feb. 23.
“It felt good going down. A lot of hard work goes into it,” Baker said. “It’s easy to fall behind if you’re not really playing, so just keeping up with that and always putting in a lot of extra work. I’ve put in a lot of extra work with [Alex O’Connell] and [Goldwire], so it’s really all about staying ready, you never know when your name will be called.”
Following the win, the Blue Devils will take on the winner of Virginia Commonwealth and Central Florida Sunday at 5:15 p.m.