We are living in the Days of Zion, an era where Duke’s man-child practically trumps the rest of the sport in terms of buzz and interest. In the age of Digital Darwinism, Zion’s dunks, blocks and general ambivalence toward gravity will dominate college basketball’s highlight montages and general captivation until he shakes Adam Silver’s hand later this spring.
LeBron James couldn’t resist the chance to catch the Zion hype train, sitting courtside in Charlottesville on Saturday night with a contingent that included teammate Rajon Rondo and agent Rich Paul. Zion delivered with flash and his Duke teammates provided the shooting sizzle, as the No. 2 Blue Devils handled No. 3 Virginia, 81-71, for their most important win of their season.
Duke shot 13-for-21 from 3-point range, a 61.9 percent clip that’s nearly 10 percent higher than its next best shooting night of the year.
If Duke continues to shoot more than 60 percent from 3-point range, they should save us all the trip to Minneapolis in April and just mail the 2019 NCAA tournament banner to Durham.
But the gutsy and impressive road win needs to start where nearly every college basketball conversation starts these days – the latest jaw-dropping viral moment from Zion Williamson. He delivered the night’s defining highlight, streaking to the deep corner from the opposite side of the middle of the key to soar into the air and block a 3-point attempt by Virginia’s De’Andre Hunter. Hunter is 6-foot-7, had leapt up in the air and fully extended high above his head when the 285-pound Williamson did his best Karch Kiraly impression and spiked the ball nearly five rows into the stands.
Virginia coach Tony Bennett summed up the rarity of the athletic play by pointing out there’s “two people in the world that can make [that play], and they were both in our gym tonight.”
He was, of course, referencing James. (The only collegiate block that came to mind was Hakim Warrick coming from the middle of the lane to extend and block Michael Lee to seal the 2003 title for Syracuse.) Bennett summed up Zion’s moment this way: “Special, special talent,” he said. “That’s a gift and he’s utilizing it.”
The block came at a critical juncture, with Duke leading by seven points with about 4:38 remaining. A 3-pointer by Hunter could have veered Duke from a night where its steely dominance and unflappable will were the main takeaways. Instead, the entire John Paul Jones arena hushed in stunned silence and Duke’s dominance continued.
The Blue Devils built a comfortable early lead by shooting 8-for-11 from 3-point range and were never significantly threatened in the second half. This came thanks to a 3-point shooting spectacle by Duke that will be considered anomalous until its repeated. Duke entered the game tied at No. 314 nationally in 3-point percentage at 30.8 percent, which essentially means the Blue Devils shot twice their average on Saturday night.
Consider that Duke’s second-best shooting performance of the season came at Notre Dame when the Blue Devils shot 52.6 percent late last month. But this was a night when Duke couldn’t miss. With shooters finding more space in this matchup between the teams thanks to the return of point guard Tre Jones — he missed Duke’s 72-70 win in January with a shoulder injury — Duke looked like the second-coming of the Warriors.
The NBA draft’s likely No. 2 pick, R.J. Barrett, shot 6-for-10, including five first-half 3-pointers. Potential top-five pick Cam Reddish shot 5-for-8 from 3-point range. Barrett finished with 26 points, Williamson with 18 and Reddish with 17.
“You could see right away he was lathered up, he got us off to such a good start,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said of Barrett. “Cam is really playing well. When we moved the ball and got them to move a little bit, sometimes we got some open shots.”
Virginia by no means played poorly, as they fell to 20-2 on the season with both losses coming to Duke. While Duke will remain the sport’s biggest story, Virginia resonates as the most compelling one. Despite the loss, there’s little doubt that Virginia is better than the UVA team last season that earned a No. 1 seed and lost to No. 16 UMBC, the first time a No. 16 has ever toppled a No. 1. So far, the Cavaliers have shown no signs of ghosts from that loss, as they’ve exhibited the same defensive gusto, an improved offense and a more diverse talent arsenal from last season. (It’s easy to forget Hunter missed the UMBC game with an injury.)
But Virginia’s season will be judged — like every big boy program in college basketball — on their NCAA tournament performance. Three consecutive epic gags — squandering a late lead to Syracuse in the Elite Eight (2016), scoring 39 points against Florida (2017) and getting blown off the floor by 20 against UMBC — give UVA the biggest disconnect between regular season results and postseason performance in the sport’s recent history.
This win will go a long way in helping Duke (21-2) earn the overall No. 1 seed and continues to cement the Blue Devils as prohibitive favorites. If Duke can even upgrade its 3-point shooting to mediocre, it will be difficult to beat. If they shoot over 60 percent, we’ll see them soar from the rest of the field like a certain power forward blocking a shot that we’ll be seeing on the highlights for the next few days.
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