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Together again, freshmen lead Duke to ACC championship

Duke’s Zion Williamson on coming back from injury and winning the ACC Tournament

Duke's Zion Williamson talks about what it meant to be back on the floor with his teammates and winning the ACC Tournament after the Blue Devils' victory over Florida State in the ACC Tournament in Charlotte, N.C., Saturday, March 16, 2019.
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Duke's Zion Williamson talks about what it meant to be back on the floor with his teammates and winning the ACC Tournament after the Blue Devils' victory over Florida State in the ACC Tournament in Charlotte, N.C., Saturday, March 16, 2019.

Zion Williamson returned, delivered and a Duke team hoping to collect championships claimed the first in its path Saturday night.

Playing his third game in three nights after missing three weeks with a sprained knee, Duke’s freshman star scored a game-high 21 points in leading the No. 5 Blue Devils past No. 12 Florida State 73-63 in the ACC tournament championship game at the Spectrum Center.

The 6-7, 285-pound Williamson scored 81 points over Duke’s three ACC tournament wins and was named the event’s most valuable player.

Freshman Tre Jones scored 18 points with six assists and freshman RJ Barrett added 17 points as the No. 3 seeded Blue Devils (29-5) won their second ACC championship in the last three years. A fourth Duke freshman starter, Cam Reddish, scored 11.

Duke won its 21st ACC tournament championship, with 15 of them coming under coach Mike Krzyzewski.

“This is the best conference, especially this year, and I’m proud of my guys,” Krzyzewski said. “They beat three outstanding opponents and tonight was a physical, really hard-fought defensive game and our guys played good defense again.”

Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski talks about winning the ACC Tournament and having Jay Bilas present the award after the Blue Devils' victory over Florida State in the ACC Tournament finals in Charlotte, N.C., Saturday, March 16, 2019.

The Blue Devils shot 49 percent from the field in the game, including 58 percent in the second half as they pulled away from a 36-36 halftime tie.

No. 4 seed Florida State (27-7) shot just 31.7 percent and struggled with 25 percent shooting in the second half.

Mfiondu Kabengele led the Seminoles with 14 points while Terance Mann added 12.

“We lost to a team that had a spurt there in the second half where they imposed their will, their physicality, on us and we did not match it,” Florida State coach Leonard Hamilton said. “That’s to their credit. I thought they had a great game plan during that period.”

The teams were tied 36-all at halftime and Mann’s 3-pointer to open the second-half scoring put the Seminoles up 39-36.

But Duke unleashed a 10-point run and Florida State never led again.

“We really emphasized at halftime to come out in the second half and really punch them first,” Barrett said, “So once we got that we were kind of able to sustain it throughout the rest of the half.”

The Blue Devils took advantage of Florida State’s poor shooting to get its transition game going to pull away.

Check out photos from the ACC Championship game between the Duke Blue Devils and the Florida State Seminoles Saturday night, March 16, 2019,

Jones started his terrific second half with a drive in the lane to score. Williamson hit a layup in transition and scored in the lane over Florida State’s 7-4 center Christ Koumadje to give Duke a 42-39 lead.

Two free throws from Javin DeLauier and Jones’ layup off a bounce pass from Williamson in transition put Duke in front 46-39.

The Blue Devils led 50-44 when they ran away from the Seminoles for good. An 8-0 run spearheaded by Jones extended Duke’s lead to double-digits.

Jones drove the lane and passed to DeLaurier for an easy basket, then added two layups of his own. His lob pass on a fast-break to Barrett for a slam dunk put Duke up 58-44 with 11:22 remaining.

At that point, Florida State had made just 3 of its first 14 shots after halftime while Duke had made 10 of 13. That allowed the Blue Devils to take a comfortable lead and Florida State never drew closer than five points again..

Both teams started sluggishly on offense, perhaps a sign of fatigue as they were each playing their third game in three nights.

After hitting 4 of its first 11 shots, FSU finally got untracked. The Seminoles hit 7 of 9 shots during a stretch that saw them build a 27-19 lead.

Devin Vessell came off the bench to hit two 3-points during that run. Trent Forrest’s steal and layup with 7:34 to play in the half gave FSU its largest lead at eight points.

But the Seminoles went cold from there, missing their next eight field goal attempts. Duke held FSU scoreless for nearly four minutes and used an 8-0 run to tie the score.

Williamson started the spurt by slicing through FSU’s halfcourt offense for a slam dunk. Barrett converted a traditional three-point play and, when Williamson and Jones unleashed a trap that led to a bad pass, Barrett stole the ball and drove for a slam dunk with 5:09 remaining in the half.

Williamson’s free throw with 4:33 left until halftime tied the score at 27.

The game had six lead changes and two more ties the rest of the half and went to intermission knotted at 36.

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An Illinois native, Steve Wiseman has covered Duke athletics since 2010 for the Durham Herald-Sun and Raleigh News & Observer. Prior to his arrival in Durham, he worked for newspapers in Columbia and Spartanburg, S.C., Biloxi, Miss., and Charlotte covering beats including the NFL’s Carolina Panthers and New Orleans Saints, University of South Carolina athletics and the S.C. General Assembly.