2019 ACC Tournament: Zion Williamson leads balanced Duke attack in title-winning victory vs. FSU

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Duke is not totally at full strength, but its case to be the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament was strengthened this week by the return of its superstar and the team’s return to the top of the ACC. The Blue Devils beat Florida State 73-63 on Saturday night in the Spectrum Center, securing Mike Krzyzewski’s 15th ACC Tournament title and second in three seasons. 

The story of the week has been the return of Zion Williamson, and the superstar freshman did about everything you could expect from a National Player of the Year frontrunner, who had a game-high 21 points for the Blue Devils vs. the Seminoles. Williamson averaged 27 points per game in the three tournament wins and made his impact felt in basically every aspect of the game. It’s fair to wonder if fatigue would be an issue in the postseason for Zion after missing nearly a month of game action, but there was no limitations on his playing time and little visible evidence of a drop-off in production. 

There was never a doubt within the program that Williamson would not only return when he was cleared by the training staff and coaches, but return with a fire built up from his time spent on the sideline. 

“Those games I sat out, when you see your brothers going to war battling and there’s nothing you can do but sit on the sideline and cheer, there’s nothing wrong with that, but I’m not that type of person,” Williamson said. “I want to be out there with them, and I made a commitment to them, and I would be a bad person if I went back on my commitment.”

Both Duke and Florida State showed some sluggishness in the first half after draining semifinal wins against top seeds North Carolina and Virginia, but when it was time to step on the gas pedal it was the Blue Devils — the team with a shorter rotation — who seemed to have the energy needed to pull away in a close and competitive game.

A big part of that was thanks to a balanced effort from Duke. In some games this season it’s been mostly Zion and teammate RJ Barrett carrying the offensive responsibility, but this week was about getting contributions from throughout the Blue Devils’ rotation. In the win against North Carolina it was Jordan Goldwire and the bench coming up big, and on Saturday night against Florida State it was a season-high showing from point guard Tre Jones (18 points) and all four Duke freshman scoring in double figures. 

” “I want to be out there with them, and I made a commitment to them, and I would be a bad person if I went back on my commitment.” Duke freshman Zion Williamson

Jones has taken a leap here as the Blue Devils role into the tournament, making Duke even more dangerous as a national championship contender. Earlier in the season opponents could (and often would) focus a majority of their efforts on stopping Zion and Barrett, but with Jones showing his ability to be not only a facilitator but equally potent scorer changes the outlook for the entire team. 

“Earlier in the year Tre was just happy running the team and did a great job,” Krzyzewski said. “He’s still happy running the team, but he can score and we need that and he knows that better now. So we’re just more balanced and we have a lot of confidence. They have a lot of confidence in one another.”

With three strong performances after his knee injury, Williamson has shifted the conversation from wondering about his health and future to a sense of appreciation. There are only but so many minutes and games left for Williamson in college basketball, and after this ACC Tournament there is the potential that every time he takes the floor will be his final time in a Duke uniform. It’s been years since one player has been as much of a runaway favorite for national player of the year and decades since we’ve seen a college basketball player generate such a feverish following. It has expanded well beyond the basketball world and into the fabric of our country’s sports conversation, and our helpless obsession with projection can sometimes cloud our ability to appreciate the present. 

And our present, and Williamson reminded us several times this week in Charlotte, is pretty awesome. 

From here on out, every Duke game could potentially be Zion’s last in college basketball. His return to action was fueled by a desire to battle with brothers and chase a championship. After weeks of serving as a lightning rod for takes both hot and cold about amateurism, one-and-done players and other big picture issues, this week has allowed us to get back to focusing on the basketball at hand.  

Categories: National Sports

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