Zion Williamson had an explosive NCAA Tournament debut with 25 points and a can’t-miss second-half showcase to lead top-seeded Duke to an 85-62 win over North Dakota State on Friday night.
RJ Barrett led Duke with 26 points and 14 rebounds and combined with Williamson for a prolific showing for the freshmen stars. But it was Williamson who could not be contained in the second half and he turned a tight early contest into a Duke runaway in the first round of the East Region.
Duke led just 31-27 at halftime but Williamson took over after the break. He opened the half by driving on two defenders for a layup that drew a foul. He missed the free throw but Williamson answered with a monster slam.
The highlight, though, came moments later on Williamsson’s breathtaking dribble-behind-his-back-after-chasing-down-his-own-steal layup.
The 6-foot-7, 285-pound freshman outran 5-foot-11 190-pound Vinnie Shahid of North Dakota State for the ball after he tipped it for a steal. Williamson then dribbled behind his back, briefly losing and regaining his balance with a hand on the floor. That cleared room for Williamson to get to the lane and go up and under for a layup.
Just like that, the Blue Devils were up 40-27 and cruising.
The Bison (19-16) never recovered.
Barrett and Williamson gave Duke two players with 20 or more points in their NCAA Tournament debut for the first time since Mark Alarie and Johnny Dawkins did it in 1984.
The Blue Devils (31-5) will face either eighth-seeded VCU or No. 9 seed UCF on Sunday for a spot in the Sweet 16.
Shahid led the Bison with 20 points.
Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said his team settled for too many missed jump shots early and it gave North Dakota State the chance to hang around.
Once Williamson got going, Duke showed why it is the top overall seed in this tournament and why CBS has dedicated a camera to follow Williamson’s journey.
Duke was expected to pick up where it left off last week when it won its 21st Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament title. Williamson was electric in the conference tournament — he went 13 of 13 from the field in a quarterfinal win over Syracuse — and became the first freshman to win both ACC player of the year and tournament MVP.
Now on the big stage with the “Zion Cam” tracking his every move, Williamson was active early with a driving basket and a monster block on the other end.
Then a crazy thing happened — the Blue Devils struggled to score. They missed 3-pointers and close-in shots, mid-range jumpers and driving layups and found themselves trailing the Summit League Tournament champions 16-12 midway through the half.
Barrett and Reddish rallied Duke toward the end — Barrett had three straight baskets — and a Jordan Goldwire 3-pointer with a minute left made it 31-27 at the break.
Williamson’s early highlight came with the game tied at 16 as he took a pass on the baseline a few feet from the rim, rose up and put down a power jam. The sold-out crowd at 18,000-seat Colonial Life Arena watched it unfold and drew in a collective breath before exploding at the result. Williamson played high school basketball in Spartanburg, 90 miles away from his NCAA Tournament debut.
North Dakota State: The Bison closed the season strongly simply to make the NCAAs. With a 15-15 record before the conference tournament, the Bison won three straight to win the Summit League Tournament. They then defeated North Carolina Central 78-74 on Wednesday night’s First Four matchup.
Duke: The Blue Devils had a sluggish start to the first — and probably only — NCAA Tournament for many of its freshman stars. But their ability to turn up the intensity will serve them well going forward, particularly if they hope to chase a sixth national title under coach Mike Krzyzewski.
North Dakota State’s season is finished.
Duke will move on to face eighth-seeded VCU or ninth-seeded UCF on Sunday.