DURHAM, N.C. — The whole world was watching. The next great thing was set to take the court in front of thousands of Cameron Crazies. Former President Barack Obama came. All were waiting for one teenager — one mythical being — named Zion Williamson to prove his status as the top draw not only in college basketball but also, most likely, in June’s NBA Draft.
The legend of Williamson had been developing for years, from highlight dunks in an empty high school gym to rejected 3-point shots that landed in the third row to basketballs deflated with the strength of his hand. This was to be Williamson’s biggest stage to date as he helped top-ranked Duke take on its most hated rival.
But Duke’s Superman was met with an unexpected dose of Kryptonite 33 seconds into Wednesday’s game. As Williamson dribbled the ball, his 6-7, 285-pound frame proved too much for his Nike sneaker to handle. It gave way, sending the behemoth freshman tumbling to the floor and creating a cacophony on Twitter in the process. He headed to the Duke bench, and then the locker room.
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“I thought he was just going to put on another pair of shoes and come back,” Duke’s RJ Barrett said. “But to see he wasn’t coming back, it was tough.”
A stunned Blue Devils team never recovered from the loss of their fallen star: No. 8 North Carolina never trailed in its 88-72 victory in the 249th iteration of the historic rivalry.
“When the big fella goes out of the game, it changes a lot of stuff,” North Carolina coach Roy Williams said. “I’ve never seen anything like him before. It was a huge blow for them. Having that happen during the course of the game, they didn’t have time to prepare for it.”
Williamson’s parents were brought back to the Blue Devils’ locker room almost immediately following his injury and minutes before an official announcement was made that he would not return to the game. The news was the nail in the coffin for Duke. The game was over before it ever even really started.
“The injury with Zion, it’s a mild knee sprain,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “The knee is stable. We don’t know how long he’ll be out.”
The biggest beneficiary of Williamson’s absence was Luke Maye, the Tar Heel initially tasked with guarding Duke’s phenom. The senior forward ran virtually unopposed down low against Williamson’s replacement, Jack White, on his way to 30 points and 15 rebounds. He dominated the Blue Devils in a way they hadn’t been all season, part of the reason they gave up 62 points in the paint after allowing an average of 30 per game heading into the matchup.
Despite the Tar Heels’ poor shooting performance from beyond the arc — just 2 of 20 — and one of starting point guard Coby White’s worst games of the year, it never felt as if Duke was in this game, because it never felt like Duke recovered emotionally from Williamson’s injury, notably to start the second half. North Carolina went on a 13-0 run in the first four minutes, stretching its lead to a game-high 22 points. A Zion-less Duke showed no similar signs of life to what is displayed a week ago when it stormed back from 23 down at Louisville.
“When we settled in at halftime, the realization that (Williamson is) not there kind of stunned us,” Krzyzewski said. “Some psychologist probably knows what the hell happened. Not (me).”
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Shock and awe aside, the other two pieces of Duke’s trio of freshmen — Barrett and Cam Reddish — appeared unfazed, providing their normal offensive firepower as they accounted for a combined 60 points on 22-of-55 shooting. Their teammates, however, failed to shoulder Williamson’s load.
Tre Jones made just one of his 11 shots, and Duke turned the ball over 20 times. Seemingly every loose ball went in UNC’s favor. The hole continued to grow until it was just too deep for Duke to climb out. How exactly does one replicate the runaway favorite for every major college basketball award?
The loss of Williamson was a perfect example of Duke’s fatal flaw: a lack of depth. Duke has been challenged when it doesn’t have three scoring options. In their only other ACC loss this season, to Syracuse, the Blue Devils were without Reddish because of the flu and Jones had to leave early with an injury.
If Duke has hopes of winning its sixth national championship — and you can be sure it does — then this team will need other players to step up. A superhero performance from a superhuman freshman is no longer a guarantee. Something as fluky as a bad sneaker could spell ruin.
“It set us back,” Reddish said. “(Williamson is) a key player. Losing him hurt. We have to learn how to fight when we lose pieces.”
Williamson’s timetable to return is unknown; more about the extent of his injury will be determined in the coming days. The good thing for Duke is it has another shot at UNC at the Dean Smith Center in just a few weeks. But if Williamson is unavailable then, it may be an encore of what we saw Wednesday: a repeat loss on Tobacco Road for a supremely talented team that’s one 6-7, 285-pound teenager away from being unbeatable.
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