CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — Zion Williamson remembers crying in his mother’s arms after suffering a knee sprain that would sideline him for nearly six full games and threaten fifth-ranked Duke’s title potential.
Less than a month later, Williamson was standing amid fallen confetti, raising an Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament championship trophy and cutting down a strand of net while sporting the widest of smiles.
This was a moment that Williamson fought so hard to make it back for.
Williamson had 21 points in Duke’s 73-63 victory over No. 12 Florida State on Saturday night in the championship game to complete his dominating three-game show. And with Williamson back and healthy, the Blue Devils are charging into the NCAA Tournament.
“For people who said I shouldn’t return,” Williamson said during the trophy presentation, “I couldn’t abandon my brothers and coaches like that.”
The Blue Devils (29-5) won their 21st tournament title for yet another trophy in an already-record haul. Williamson became only the sixth freshman in the event’s 66-year history to win MVP honors and the first in a dozen years after averaging 27 points and 10 rebounds while making 33 of 43 shots in the three games.
“My teammates and my coaches, they never rushed me back,” Williamson said. “I could’ve come back a few games ago, but I wouldn’t have been myself. So they sat me down and said ‘Get in better condition.’ That’s what I did. … I feel like I’m back to normal.”
He certainly looked back to highlight-making form. There of course were the high-flying dunks, the unstoppable attacks to the paint and the defensive pressure that made him a factor at both ends since his return in Thursday’s quarterfinals against Syracuse.
Yet Williamson might have made his most dazzling play with an open-court pass: a perfect baseball-style bounce pass he threw to fellow freshman Tre Jones nearly a half-a-court ahead in transition for a second-half score.
Williamson even stopped to look at his hand almost in surprise at his own latest jaw dropper.
“When I made that pass, I even looked at my arm,” Williamson said. “It was like, ‘Thank you for getting that pass through.'”
Everything started with a quarterfinal win over Syracuse, with Williamson going for 29 points on 13-for-13 shooting in his first game back. Then came an even bigger performance in the semifinals: 31 points, 11 rebounds and the final-minute tip-in that ultimately helped Duke hold off third-ranked North Carolina in a rivalry classic.
This time, Williamson didn’t need as big of a performance with all four of Duke’s top-tier freshmen hitting double figures. RJ Barrett added 17 points and nine rebounds, while Jones had his own strong outing with 18 points and six assists. Duke shot 58 percent after halftime to turn a 36-all score into a 14-point lead by midway through the half.
It was all part of Duke’s closing act that showed the Blue Devils are ready for what’s ahead. And it gave Hall of Fame coach Mike Krzyzewski his record 15th ACC Tournament championship.
“I told them last night: ‘We’ve won a lot of championships but I haven’t won one with you,'” Krzyzewski said during the trophy presentation. “So to be in their moment is the very best thing.”
Mfiondu Kabengele scored 14 points for the Seminoles (27-7). They upset No. 2 Virginia in Friday’s semifinals but couldn’t recover after falling behind big, getting no closer than five again.
Florida State shot just 32 percent, including 8 for 32 after halftime (25 percent).
“The main thing with us is that we beat ourselves,” Florida State forward Phil Cofer said. “Duke’s still a great team. But we can’t shoot that bad. And we missed some easy shots that we usually make.”
FSU: The Seminoles had been rolling since a 1-4 ACC start in January, winning 14 of 15 games with the only loss coming at third-ranked North Carolina. And they controlled most of the game against the Cavaliers, shooting nearly 57 percent to tear through Virginia’s stout defense. But by Saturday, they managed to stay right with Duke for a half only to fade as the Blue Devils made their title-clinching move.
Duke: This tournament was all about the 6-foot-7, 285-pound Williamson, whose Feb. 20 knee sprain — that included the image of his left foot tearing through the side of his shoe as he fell to the court — loomed over a team that had spent a national-best seven weeks at No. 1 in the AP Top 25. But Williamson’s return restored that confident edge that reaches throughout Duke’s lineup at both ends of the court.
“I think there’s a verve when he’s in there,” associate head coach Jon Scheyer said, adding: “I think his personality and the connection that he has with the rest of our guys, that’s real, and there’s something to be said for that.”
FSU: The Seminoles are headed to the NCAA Tournament, where they hope for another deep run like last year’s push to within a game of the Final Four. “We know that we’re national championship contenders,” senior Terance Mann said. “We’ve got to keep that in mind and keep fighting.”
Duke: The Blue Devils have claimed the league’s automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament, possibly as the No. 1 overall seed.
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