Duke avoids upset, edges Virginia Tech to reach Elite 8
WASHINGTON — Zion Williamson soared for a two-handed, rim-rattling, crowd-thrilling alley-oop that gave Duke its biggest lead during a tight tussle against Virginia Tech in the East Region semifinals.
He is known for his dunks, to be sure, but he can do more. So much more. And now Williamson and two of the Blue Devils’ other fabulous freshmen have them one victory from the Final Four. Just barely, though, thanks to yet another miss by an opponent.
Williamson scored 23 points. RJ Barrett had 18 and a career-high 11 assists, and Tre Jones added 22 points and eight assists, helping No. 1 overall seed Duke avoid an NCAA Tournament upset and edge No. 4-seeded Virginia Tech, 75-73, on Friday night.
The Hokies had their chances in the closing seconds, the final one coming on an inbounds play with 1.1 seconds left. The ball went to Ahmed Hill as he jumped to the basket, but his attempt to tie it failed. Hill dropped to the court on his back as Williamson — fittingly — grabbed the basketball and smiled broadly. It was similar to the way two last-gasp shots went off the rim for Duke’s second-round opponent, UCF.
Before that final miss, both Hill and Ty Outlaw airballed 3-point attempts that would have put Virginia Tech ahead.
But Duke got through, even though it trailed much of the evening, including 38-34 at halftime.
In the Elite Eight on Sunday, Duke (32-5) will take on No. 2 seed Michigan State.
Williamson showed off his full repertoire in the early going, all of the sorts of skills that made people joke — well, actually, they might be dead serious — that NBA teams would be #NotTryinForZion, tanking away this season in order to get a better chance at taking him with the No. 1 overall pick in the draft.
At 6-foot-7 and 285 pounds but with the agility, speed and flair of a guard, Williamson scored seven of Duke’s first nine points, including one rise-above-it-all put-back jam and, later, a 3-pointer. He flew from seemingly nowhere to swat a shot off the glass at the defensive end. He tapped in a no-look layup.
And then in the second half, when Duke used a 9-0 run to erase its last deficit and make it 60-52 with 10 minutes left, Williamson was a part of it, naturally. There was a dart of a pass out of a double team in the paint to find Jones in a corner for a 3. And then the coup de grace — a highlight-worthy dunk off a lob from Jones.
Perhaps buoyed by the knowledge that it beat Duke already this season — albeit while Williamson was sidelined for five games after hurting his knee in a bizarre, headline-grabbing shoe mishap during a game — Virginia Tech came out looking like a team that believed.
Believed it could withstand a big game from Williamson.
Believed it could hang with the highly regarded Blue Devils.
Believed it could win.
This time, the Blue Devils were without another terrific freshman, forward Cam Reddish, who was sidelined with a bad knee and was a late scratch.
It took Duke 13½ minutes just to grab its initial lead, on a three-point play by Jones that made it 26-24.
But Justin Robinson — the senior point guard who missed 12 games before the NCAAs with a hurt foot — and Hill soon replied by sinking 3s, pushing the Hokies back in front.
Kerry Blackshear Jr. led the Hokies with 18 points and 16 rebounds. Hill scored 15.