Michigan State withstands Zion Williamson's brilliance, downs Duke in Elite Eight

He was the star around which an entire sport orbited. A phenomenon that for nearly five months transcended it. He was, and still is, a generational talent; the sure-fire No. 1 pick in the 2019 NBA draft; quite possibly the best one-and-done ever.

But Zion Williamson, when all was said and done, was supposed to stand atop that sport he temporarily ruled. And on Sunday, Tom Izzo and Michigan State ensured he never will.

The Spartans ousted Duke and Zion in the Elite Eight, 68-67. It was the third straight NCAA tournament nail-biter for the Blue Devils. And this time, it was their downfall.

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This time, Williamson’s college career almost surely ended.

This time, for just the second time in 13 tries, Izzo bested Mike Krzyzewski. And for the eighth time in 21 seasons, Izzo and the Spartans are returning to the Final Four.

Williamson scored 24 points, 17 of them in the second half, and at times seemed borderline unstoppable. He was a defensive force, with three blocks, three steals and 14 rebounds.

But the numbers, and Zion’s overall supremacy, were insufficient. Kenny Goins’ 3-pointer with 34 seconds left gave Michigan State a 68-66 lead, and it turned out to be the winner.

R.J. Barrett missed with a would-be answer at the other end. After neither team could corral the rebound, and the ball slithered out of bounds off the Spartans, Barrett had a second chance, and was fouled going to the rim.

But Barrett missed the first free throw. He tried to miss the second, but accidentally made it. Williamson never got another chance to win the game millions had tuned in to see him win. Cassius Winston broke contain on the inbounds pass, and the Spartans ran away with a 68-67 win.

Michigan State frustrates Zion early

As two-and-a-half of Duke’s three previous tournament games had been, Sunday’s was a back-and-forth battle. A grind. But the tense, tight nature of this one was in no way a surprise.

Michigan State jumped out to an early lead, in large part because it contained and frustrated Williamson. And unlike in the Sweet 16, there was no Tre Jones 3-point explosion. Jones and Cam Reddish combined for just seven points in the first half and 12 all night. Javin DeLaurier, with 10 points and 11 boards, was the most influential Blue Devil beyond the big two.

Barrett had 12 first-half points, but Zion was held to seven on 3-of-8 shooting. He had more turnovers (four) than made field goals.

“They would bring two or three defenders, so I wouldn't be able to spin,” Williamson said after the game, explaining some of his early struggles in the post.

Duke had 10 turnovers as a team, which allowed Michigan State to get out in transition. Over 40 minutes, they had 15 fast-break points to Duke’s zero.

A 12-0 run midway through the half gave Duke its first lead. Barrett and Reddish both hit 3s, extending that lead to 30-21. But Michigan State responded with a 13-0 spurt of its own to close the half. The Blue Devils didn’t score over the last 5:22, and went to the locker room behind 34-30.

Zion goes into unstoppable mode

Coming out of the locker room, however, it was Zion time.

Duke rarely even ran offense specifically for its star. But Zion was bullying Michigan State’s bruisers inside.

He scored Duke’s first 10 points of the half on a few layups, a free throw and a 3. He scored in the post, on second chances, and after blowing by overmatched bigs.

He was brilliant throughout the second half, also erasing three shots at the other end. He spanked one off the glass.

He skied for another out at the 3-point line.

He leapt out of the arena for rebounds, and affected countless shots around the rim. On one occasion, Xavier Tillman spun baseline toward the rim, then saw Zion approaching as a help-side defender and simply froze. He was whistled for three in the key.

Yet despite Williamson’s individual excellence, Duke never pulled away. Michigan State was hanging tough at 58-58 with under six minutes to go. The Spartans went ahead 63-59 with less than four minutes to go on Tillman’s ferocious and-one dunk in transition.

Duke responded, though. Williamson drew help and dished to Barrett for a go-ahead triple from the top of the key.

And Williamson followed with his 23rd and 24th points, on a driving layup from a tough angle, to complete the 7-0 Duke burst.

It was Barrett, though, who snatched the baton for the final leg. It was Cassius Winston on the other end. And that, undoubtedly, was Michigan State’s advantage. Winston had 10 assists and just one turnover.

“He's the best guard we've played against,” Krzyzewski said postgame.

Winston dished to Tillman for a lay-in to cut Duke’s lead to one. Barrett missed at the other end, then missed twice more in the final 15 seconds. He was absolutely devastated on the court after the final horn.

Michigan State, meanwhile, was elated. Through multiple injuries and setbacks, the Spartans persevered. Texas Tech is next in Minneapolis on Saturday. And a first national title since 2000 is two wins away.

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