For the second time this season, Duke had to scrap its game plan after losing a starter to injury early in an ACC showdown. For the second time, the Blue Devils couldn’t recover.
In January, freshman point guard Tre Jones went down with a shoulder separation four minutes into a home game against Syracuse. Without their on-court leader, the Blue Devils relied on the three and fell in overtime.
Wednesday, power forward Zion Williamson, one of the best players in the nation, suffered a freak injury 34 seconds into a showdown with North Carolina. The Blue Devils fell behind by 22 before losing to the Tar Heels, 88-72.
“The preparation that you would have for the game is obviously based on the players being there,” coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “Especially [Zion] and RJ [Barrett], who are the key guys. It puts everyone in a state of trying to figure it out when you’re playing an outstanding team. That’s not a good situation.”
Williamson chased down a loose ball in the game’s opening minute. Then, in a freak accident, his shoe split apart as he planted his foot. His foot slid across the floor, causing his legs to split awkwardly. He went down holding his knee.
“I’ve never seen anything like that,” said UNC guard Kenny Williams. “I didn’t know what happened.”
“I don’t think anyone has seen a shoe do that,” said Hall of Fame center David Robinson, who sat courtside, close to former president Barack Obama.
“The first thing I thought of was that movie, Like Mike, where his shoe splits apart at the end,” said RJ Barrett, who led Duke with 33 points and 13 rebounds.
Williamson was taken to the locker room immediately and ruled out for the rest of the game before halftime.
“It’s a mild knee sprain,” Krzyzewski said. “The knee is stable. We don’t know how long he’ll be out. I think we’ll find out more about that. That’s that.”
With Williamson, who has attracted national attention with his highlight film dunks and shot blocks, out UNC focused its attention on the post, outscoring Duke 62-28 in the paint.
“We were knocked back after that injury,” Krzyzewski said. “You could see it. [North Carolina] went ahead and played well. … We dug ourselves a huge hole against an outstanding team.”
Duke rallied and cut the lead to five late in the first half, before trailing by 10 at the break.
“I thought we regrouped and fought like crazy,” Krzyzewski said. “I thought we put a lot of pressure on our own shots, and they did too, but for us, it was ‘I’ve got this guy out. I’ve got to hit.’ And we didn’t.”
In the second half, UNC opened on a 17-5 run to build its biggest lead in Cameron since the 2012 game.
“When we settled in (at halftime), the realization of ‘he’s not there’ kind of stunned us, and we were horrible at the start of the half,” Krzyzewski said.
Duke now faces the prospect of being without Williamson, the consensus No. 1 pick in this spring’s NBA Draft, for the near future.
Duke shot 39 three-pointers, hitting eight, compared to 32 shots from two-point range. Barrett and Cam Reddish, who had 27 points, were the only Blue Devils to score more than six in the game, leaving Duke with serious questions about a third scoring option and inside presence in Willliamson’s absence.
“I don’t know [who the third scorer will be] yet,” Krzyzewski said. “I’d rather not talk about what we’re going to do. I’d rather talk about what just happened. We’ll try to figure out what we’re going to do so I don’t have that answer for you. Obviously, if you lose a National Player of the Year candidate, there are going to be gaps on what you have to do.”