The mere presence of Zion Williamson is so arresting that it has a way of overshadowing everything else in its radius, even if it’s the greatest college basketball rivalry of all-time between two teams with national title aspirations playing for a spot in the ACC tournament title game.
That’s what happened on Friday night in Duke’s exhilarating 74-73 victory over North Carolina, a blur of clutch plays and big performances on both sides that coalesced into one of the more purely entertaining games of the college basketball season. When it was over, it was hard to think about anything other than Williamson’s hulking effort.
Zion — he needs only one name — finished the night with 31 points and 11 rebounds on 13-of-19 shooting from the floor. Without him, Duke lost to Carolina twice by a combined 25 points. With him, they’ll face Florida State for the ACC tournament championship on Saturday.
Williamson has put to rest any doubt that he wouldn’t be 100 percent for the NCAA tournament with two brilliant showings since his return from a sprained knee. Let’s count the ways he dominated against the Tar Heels.
Zion wrecked havoc on defense
Williamson’s dunking gets all the attention, but it’s ability to force turnovers on defense that gives him his greatest runways. While he only had one steal and one block against UNC, both changed the complexion of the game.
The anticipation to break into the passing lanes is just as impressive as the slam. There might not be a player on this planet who can stop him in transition, the NBA included (though we can’t wait to see, like, Giannis try).
Williamson’s block was just as critical, erasing a Luke Maye shot that could have given UNC the lead with 90 seconds to play. The clothing speed is so unfair it might be better to not even try.
Zion owned the paint
With starting center Marques Bolden sidelined by a knee injury, Williamson is having to log minutes at center for Duke in the ACC tournament. It’s possible that’s his best position despite only standing about 6’6. Put shooters around Zion and he’s going to bully anyone in front of him in the paint.
This might have been his greatest move of the game: going from one side of the basket to the other with a powerful pro hop, then exploding for a dunk before any defender could get off the ground. How are you going to stop a 280-pound man with that combination of quickness and power?
By the way, North Carolina turned this bucket into a fastbreak about three seconds later that ended in an and-one. The Tar Heels were electric even in defeat.
Zion was unstoppable on the glass
With the game on the line, Duke cleared out for Williamson, pitting him one-on-one with UNC’s Nassir Little, a player who was ranked ahead of him in most recruiting rankings. Little — who has struggled mightily this year but showed flashes on Friday — did well to hold his ground against Williamson’s initial attempt, but couldn’t keep him from getting the put-back.
Williamson even hit two threes in this game, something he was starting to do with more regularity before the injury. When those start falling, the legends of the game will put on notice.
Zion wasn’t perfect like he was in his post-injury debut one night earlier, but he was still incredible. At this point, he has both a statistical and physical case to be considered one of the best college basketball players of all-time.
Every game Williamson plays at this level is a blessing for college basketball. He has one more on Saturday vs. an excellent Florida State team that just knocked off Virginia. Then it really gets fun.