Duke thrives in Zion’s return. Blue Devils advance past Syracuse

Zion Williamson throws down a dunk in his return to action in ACC Tournament

Check out a timelapse of Zion Williamson's first dunk against Syracuse in his return to action in the ACC Tournament Thursday night March 14, 2019.
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Check out a timelapse of Zion Williamson's first dunk against Syracuse in his return to action in the ACC Tournament Thursday night March 14, 2019.

Zion Williamson returned with perfection, giving No. 5 Duke another shot at beating rival North Carolina.

The 6-7 freshman, playing his first game since suffering a sprained knee on Feb. 20, hit all 13 of his shots from the field to score 29 points in third-seeded Duke’s 84-72 win over sixth-seed Syracuse in the ACC tournament quarterfinals.

Duke (27-5) advances to play second-seeded UNC (27-5) in the ACC semifinals Friday night. The Tar Heels won both regular season meetings between the rivals as Williamson, the ACC player of the year, was limited to 36 seconds of play due to his injury.

Syracuse (20-13) played its second tournament game in as many nights without leading scorer Tyus Battle, who missed his second game in a row with a lower back bruise. That didn’t stop the Orange from rallying from a 17-point first half deficit to tie the score at 46 in the second half.

But Duke rode solid night’s from three of its four freshmen starters to pull way for the win. Williamson had 14 rebounds and five steals to go with his scoring output. Classmate RJ Barrett added 23 points for the Blue Devils while freshman point guard Tre Jones added 15 points and eight assists.

Duke shot 53.8 percent to overcome its 18 turnovers.

Duke led by as many as 17 points in the first half and appeared on the verge of blowout the Orange out. But Duke’s sloppiness on offense, combined with Syracuse’s improved shooting allowed the Orange to trail 34-28 at halftime.

Duke pushed the lead back to seven points at 40-33 with 16:40 to play. But a 5-0 Syracuse run, capped by Oshae Brissett’s spin move to score over Jones in the lane left Duke up 40-38.

Duke Zion Williamson talks with the media in the Duke locker room.

Buddy Boeheim hit back-to-back 3-pointers for the Orange, including a jumper with 13:00 to play that tied the score at 46.

The Blue Devils led 52-49 when reserve Jordan Goldwire gave them a boost. The sophomore guard picked up a loose ball in the backcourt for a steal before driving into the crowded lane to hit a layup while drawing a foul. His free throw put Duke up 55-49 with 10:08 to play.

Check out photos from Duke's ACC Tournament quarterfinal game against Syracuse Thursday night March 14, 2019.

Williamson took a pass from Jones to score with 9:48 for a 57-51 Duke lead and, on defense, he dashed across the lane to block Elijah Hughes’ shot in the lane.

Barrett’s 3-pointer with 9:11 left put Duke up 60-51.

After the Orange cut the lead to 60-55 with 7:32 left, Jones nailed a 3-pointer from the right side for Duke.

Syracuse’s Marek Dolezaj (21) looses the ball under pressure from Duke’s Tre Jones (3) during the first half on Thursday, March 14, 2019 during quarter finals of the ACC Tournament at Spectrum Center in Charlotte, N.C. Robert Willett

With 6:24 to play, Syracuse center 7-2 senior center Paschal Chukwu fouled Jones in the backcourt after an Orange missed shot. It was his fifth foul. Jones hit both free throws for a 65-55 Duke lead and the Blue Devils rolled from there.

Williamson hit his first nine shots as Duke led by as many as 17 in the first half.

When Williamson recorded his fourth slam dunk of the first half with 3:40 left, Duke led Syracuse 32-15. At that point, Williamson had 18 points, three more than the Orange.

Howard erased that and made the score close at intermission.

The senior guard scored the Orange’s next 10 points, including a pair of 3-pointers. When Boeheim drilled a 3-pointer with 38 seconds left in the half, the Orange had outscored Duke 13-2 to cut the Blue Devils’ lead to 34-28 at halftime.

Williamson finished the first half with 21 points, nine rebounds and five steals.

The Blue Devils lacked his efficiency as a whole, though. They shot 48 percent, hitting only 3 of 12 3-pointers, while committing 11 turnovers in the first half.

Check out North Carolina coach Roy Williams' answer when asked if he wants his Tar Heels to face Duke in the ACC Tournament semifinals.

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An Illinois native, Steve Wiseman has covered Duke athletics since 2010 for the Durham Herald-Sun and Raleigh News & Observer. Prior to his arrival in Durham, he worked for newspapers in Columbia and Spartanburg, S.C., Biloxi, Miss., and Charlotte covering beats including the NFL’s Carolina Panthers and New Orleans Saints, University of South Carolina athletics and the S.C. General Assembly.