Zion Williamson stars in return to Duke lineup

The Blue Devils overwhelmed Syracuse to set up a third meeting with rival North Carolina

Duke's Zion Williamson (1) goes up to dunk against Syracuse during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament in Charlotte, N.C., Thursday, March 14, 2019. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton)

CHARLOTTE — Zion Williamson made his return to the Duke lineup with a spectacular night in the Blue Devils’ 84-72 win over Syracuse in the ACC Tournament quarterfinals.

Williamson, who missed the last five games of the regular season with a knee injury, scored a game-high 29 points and was perfect from the field, hitting all 13 shots he took.

“Getting Zion back, after missing almost a month, was huge,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said.

The 13-for-13 performance set a school single-game record as well as an ACC Tournament mark. He also had five steals, a Duke freshman record for the tourney. “I just wanted to play defense, get into the passing lanes and apply pressure.”

Williamson also added 14 rebounds and two assists.

Williamson has now made 19 straight shots, dating back to before the injury, one shy of the ACC record.

“Williamson is a difficult guy,” Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said. “You really can’t handle him in the painted area. … I’ve been in this game 50 years. I’ve seen a lot of great players. He can do things that no one has done in this game.”

Early in the first half, Williamson scooped up a loose ball and sped downcourt, soaring for an emphatic dunk that removed any doubt about if the knee injury would slow him. He finished with five dunks.

Williamson also logged 35½ minutes, second-most on the team, removing any thoughts that he would be eased back into the lineup or suffer from rust.

“People thought I wouldn’t be back,” Williamson said in an on-court interview with ESPN. “They weren’t smart.”

It took a while for Williamson’s teammates to adjust to his return, however. While Williamson hit 9 of 9 for 21 points in the first half, the rest of the team was 4-for-18.

A Syracuse run to close the half cut Duke’s lead from 17 with 3:40 to go in the half to six at the break.

The rest of the Blue Devils picked things up in the second half. RJ Barrett finished with 23 points and six rebounds, while Tre Jones had 15 points and eight assists. Duke also had four players with multiple steals for a season-high 14 on the night.

“They really suffocated us with their defense,” Boeheim said.

The win sets up a third game with UNC in the semifinals on Friday. The Tar Heels won both regular-season matchups — one with Williamson out with injury and one where he suffered the injury 34 seconds into the game.

It’s just the second time in the history of the tournament that UNC and Duke have played three straight years. The first time was 2001 to 2003, with Duke sweeping all three. Duke and UNC split their tourney showdowns the last two years in Brooklyn.

This will be the sixth time UNC and Duke meet in Charlotte and first since the 2002 ACC Tournament. Duke has a 3-2 advantage in the city.