Duke open ACC Tournament with comfortable win
Duke and Zion Williamson celebrated the superstar’s return to action at the ACC Tournament with a performance that showed every aspect of why he was named the ACC’s Player of the Year. There were dunks, rebounds, steals, three-pointers, a perfect field-goal percentage and plenty of viral-ready highlights that have become the trademark of Zion’s basketball career.
Williamson finished the game with 29 points on 13-for-13 shooting with 14 rebounds, five steals and a block. The star freshman was a one-man wrecking crew from the moment the game began. Concern about the health of his knee? Consider it washed away by the force of his ferocious open-floor dunk in the opening minutes of the 84-72 win against Syracuse.
In beating Syracuse, Duke advances to the ACC Tournament semifinals to face North Carolina for the third time in less than a month. Only this time, with a full strength Zion expected to play a full game. The Blue Devils will be given considerably better odds to take down the Tar Heels.
Williamson put to bed the conversation about “shutting it down” prior to his return. Emphasizing the desire to experience the rest of this season with his teammates and pursue a national championship. When he walked off the floor in the Smith Center last Saturday night after sitting out for a fifth straight game. Zion certainly knew there was a chance that Duke would get another crack at the Tar Heels. The anticipation for his return to action has been building since the moment his shoe exploded 36 seconds into the first meeting against UNC. But so has the anticipation for Williamson to lead Duke in a battle against the rival Tar Heels.
This will be the third straight year Duke and North Carolina have played the ACC Tournament. And 23rd tournament meeting all-time. Each game carries different weight and significance from year to year. Usually, the stakes are low compared to what you might expect from a fierce rivalry like this and the usual tensions of championship week. Both teams are usually pretty much locked into their NCAA Tournament future. Not only securely in the tournament. But relatively set on their seeding. The vibe can be closer to an exciting early-season neutral court showcase. Both teams want to win, sure. But losing doesn’t drastically alter their immediate or long-term future.
Friday night’s primetime showdown in the semi finals is different. Because the stakes for the NCAA Tournament could not be higher.
Both teams are squarely in the mix for a No. 1 seed. Which can nearly double your chances of making the Final Four as opposed to landing on the No. 2 line. North Carolina can bolster its argument for the selection committee by finally taking down a Zion-powered Duke team for the rare 3-game sweep in the rivalry. A feat that hasn’t been accomplished since Duke did won all three meetings in 2002. If it beats North Carolina, Duke is able to separate that result from its Zion-less losses to the Tar Heels. Possibly getting a chance to face Virginia. Arguably the only “lock” for a No. 1 seed, in the championship game on Saturday night.
That’s what makes Friday night so interesting. Not that we get Duke and North Carolina in the ACC Tournament, but that we get that matchup at a time when so much is still at stake for both of these national title contenders.