COLUMBIA, S.C. – Sunday’s bracket reveal proved to be quite the welcome surprise for Duke forward Zion Williamson.
Williamson, who played his high school basketball at Spartanburg Day in the Upstate, was unsure if he would ever hear his name announced in the Palmetto State as a collegian.
“I didn’t think I would ever have a chance, once I committed to Duke, to play in the state of South Carolina in a college basketball game,” said Williamson in Thursday’s media availability, before pausing. “I can’t put my personal excitement ahead of my teammates because, at the end of the day, I’m on a team, and I want to win with my teammates, and we have to focus on just winning.”
It’s pretty safe to say that, despite a bit of a bumpy first half, they did just that.
Williamson and R.J. Barrett combined for 51 points and 17 rebounds to become the first-ever freshman duo with 25 or more points each in a tournament game, as Duke turned a precarious four-point halftime lead into a runaway, 85-62 victory Friday night at Colonial Life Arena.
“I felt like we were excited, definitely excited to play,” said Barrett. “We’ve all been growing up watching the tournament for many years, and we’re excited to get out there and just — we didn’t really have as much energy. We weren’t really playing as well at the beginning. Thankfully, we were able to pick it up.”
That lack of energy came to the fore in the first half, as the Blue Devils were matched shot-for-shot by the Bison, who defeated NC Central in a play-in game Wednesday night. North Dakota State (19-16) led Duke by as many as seven in that first half, generating some murmurs and discomfort among the many blue-clad fans that made the trek from Durham to Columbia.
Duke (30-5) managed to only stretch its lead as far as six points on a Jordan Goldwire triple with a minute to play in the half. Vinnie Shahid converted a layup with just over 30 seconds to play, providing the 31-27 margin the Blue Devils would take to the interval.
The second twenty minutes turned into the Zion Williamson show, almost from the first inbounds pass. The freshman poured in 13 of his 25 in a sizzling six-minute stretch, as the Blue Devil advantage went from four to 20 in seemingly no time.
“Obviously, it’s Duke, the number one seed. We knew it (the run) was coming,” said North Dakota State coach David Richman. “It’s really tough when they’re so well-coached, the length and athleticism. When you get them out in transition, we talked about it to our guys the last couple days. They’re elites, and it’s hard to get a stop when that gets going.”
“He’s a really good player. He capitalized in transition and on the offensive boards, and he’s finishing around the rim,” said North Dakota State guard Vinnie Shahid of Williamson. “(He’s) probably one of the best athletes I’ve ever seen with my own eyes, but he’s a really great player.”
“We were just more ourselves,” said Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski of the run. “We didn’t start the game the way we have played. We started it being jump shooters and just being fast break. Most of our possessions had no passes, and therefore, we had no rebounds.
“We started getting stuff more inside, and then they started to feel us on both ends of the court. We didn’t start the game well, and they did, and that’s why they were ahead.”
The run staggered the road-weary Bison, and the 16th-seeded club could never draw closer. Duke extended the lead as far as 31 on a Barrett free throw, before North Dakota State drew the lead back toward its final total.
“Obviously, Duke was the number one overall seed there, especially in the second half, they get out in transition like that and turn you over, they’re elite,” said Richman. “That’s an exceptional team, and it was a pleasure to coach against Coach K and for our guys to compete in that environment.
More so than anything, what our guys accomplished in the last three weeks in particular and over the last six weeks is tremendous. But that doesn’t come close to what I’m really proud of. What I’m really proud of is how they did it. We talked a lot about representing a school, a community, a fan base, a state the right way, and to me, these guys did it.”
Shahid tallied 20 to lead the Bison, finding the net on 7-of-14 field goal tries. Jordan Horn added 11 in 14 minutes off the pine. North Dakota State shot 36.2 percent (21-for-58) on the game, with just eight of 29 three-pointers (27.6 percent) splashing the net.
Duke outscored North Dakota State 42-18 in the paint, guided largely by the efforts of Williamson and Barrett. Barrett scored 26 and Williamson 25, with Cam Reddish adding 12. The Blue Devils connected on 50.8 percent (33-for-65) of their tries.
Krzyzewski responded after the game to the notion that Williamson is a “wow” player.
“Yeah, but I’ve had a lot of wow guys,” said Krzyzewski. “Yeah, he’s there, but R.J. is a wow guy. Tre (Jones) on defense. When Cam comes down and hits those trail threes or fast breaks. Javin (DeLaurier) makes a block. I get excited for all my guys, and obviously I get excited a lot about him because he’s a hell of a player.”
Williamson’s second game in his home state will be played Sunday night, as former Duke star and assistant Johnny Dawkins brings his UCF Knights and 7-foot-6 Tacko Fall to battle the Blue Devils. Tip time between the Blue Devils and ninth-seeded Knights is slated for 5:15.
Postgame Press Conference