Luke DeCock

For Clemson, Zion Williamson is only what might have been. Duke remains happy with what is.

Zion Williamson dunk drives Cameron Indoor Stadium fans crazy

Zion Williamson steals the ball from Clemson and does a 360 degree dunk as the Tigers trail the play
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Zion Williamson steals the ball from Clemson and does a 360 degree dunk as the Tigers trail the play

Clemson can muck it up and scrap it out as well as anyone in the ACC, but as physical as the Tigers are they don’t have anything that even approaches Zion Williamson. Which is all the more cruel since Clemson thought it had a pretty good chance of keeping Williamson in the area code, right until the moment he picked Duke instead.

Brad Brownell probably didn’t need to be reminded of what slipped through his fingers but he got it anyway Saturday. Duke probably did need to get knocked around by a team like Clemson as a welcome to ACC play and the Blue Devils absolutely got that.

Williamson unimpeded from half court is unfair to anyone, especially the rim. When Williamson collared a Clemson turnover at midcourt in the second half and launched into a 360-degree dunk that might have won the NBA dunk contest in 1987, that was it for the night, emotionally and functionally. The thunderous slam extended Duke’s lead to 24, and Williamson ensured it stayed that way by soaring to knock a pair of Clemson shots away from the rim after that.

Those theatrics, and the 87-68 final score, made it look easy for the Blue Devils, but it was anything but. Clemson opened the game exacting a price on every play, every drive, and it wasn’t until just before the half that Duke seemed to even be comfortable on the floor. (Cam Reddish, mired in a curious slump for a month now, never really was.)

At one point, Jack White had cotton stuffed into a bloody nose, Marques Bolden had a bandage slapped on his knee and the towel-wielding managers were in overdrive after three multiple-player loose-ball pile-ups in the first few minutes. When Williamson went crashing into Elijah Thomas, all 530 pounds of them, the thud registered on seismographs.

Even though an exasperated Brownell said his team’s physicality was “nonexistent” – there’s a different bar at Clemson – it was still rough and tumble unlike anything 12-1 Duke had seen this season, something it will see a lot more of now.

“The ACC has begun,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski proclaimed after the game

Clemson won’t have to see Williamson again, unless in Charlotte, and Brownell has to feel pretty good about that. He sold Williamson hard on the idea of being a hometown hero – merely hour down the road from Spartanburg – and there was reason for optimism that the pitch would work until Krzyzewski closed the deal to bring Williamson to Duke instead.

“It was a very hard decision – stay home with all my friends?” Williamson said. “I feel like each school was a good fit, but when it came down to it, playing for Coach K and all these great players, I felt I couldn’t turn that away.”

This was exactly what a wistful Brownell was expecting to see from him, preferably every night.

“Yeah,” Brownell said. “I thought he would be this good.”

Even in these circumstances, there was no mercy in Williamson’s game Saturday. He didn’t miss from inside the arc, and after two awkward 3-point attempts, finally connected on a third late in the second half. And there was no mercy whatsoever in the dunk, even if teammates R.J. Barrett and Mike Buckmire both rated it “a 7 or 8,” based on what they have seen behind the scenes.

The dunk and the blocks and everything else made it one of those Zion nights, the kind where he shows off everything that made him such a phenomenon in the first place, and to do it on such a scale against the team and coach he spurned was almost unfair.

“Seeing him do that, I’m very happy I’m coaching him,” Krzyzewski said, and somewhere, Brownell must have twitched. He knew what might have been. Duke is pretty happy with what is.

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Sports columnist Luke DeCock has covered the Summer Olympics, the Final Four, the Super Bowl and the Carolina Hurricanes’ Stanley Cup. He joined The News & Observer in 2000 to cover the Hurricanes and the NHL before becoming a columnist in 2008. A native of Evanston, Ill., he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania and has won multiple national and state awards for his columns and feature writing while twice being named North Carolina Sportswriter of the Year.