For a solid month that ended Saturday night, the Queen City served as the king of basketball.
Charlotte hosted the NBA All-Star Game, the CIAA tournament and the ACC tournament in a phenomenal four-week period. All of it was good. Some of it was great.
But the person performing the most unforgettable acts on the Spectrum Center court during that month wasn’t LeBron James, Kevin Durant or Steph Curry.
It was Zion Williamson.
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The Duke freshman capped his extraordinary ACC tournament with 21 points in the ACC championship game Saturday night, leading the Blue Devils to a 73-63 win over Florida State. After missing five consecutive games due to a knee injury, Zion returned with vigor and vengeance as Duke improved its seeding for the upcoming NCAA tournament and looked so much more in synch with their 285-pound skyrocket in the game.
This 66th ACC tournament – played in Charlotte for the first time since 2008 – found a horseshoe. Some tournaments are forgotten the week after they are played, but this one got one utterly spectacular player and one utterly spectacular game.
The game in question wasn’t the tourney final – that was an anti-climactic coronation for a Duke program that has, amazingly, now participated in half of the ACC tournament finals ever played (33 of 66). Duke has also won 12 of the past 23 ACC tourneys.
No, the signature game came the night before, when UNC and Duke played an ACC semifinal for the ages. Duke won, 74-73, but only after the Tar Heels missed three shots in the final 18 seconds. All 40 minutes were extraordinarily competitive and entertaining, with multiple future NBA players on both teams.
Zion, of course, was the utterly spectacular player. He was named the ACC tournament’s Most Valuable Player on Saturday night after scoring 81 points over a three-game period (setting a Duke record that had stood for 58 years) while shooting 33-of-43 (76.7 percent) from the field.
Williamson had a perfect 13-for-13 night against Syracuse in the quarterfinals, after which Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said of Zion: “He can do things that nobody has done in this game. I mean Charles (Barkley) was close. But this guy is bigger. Stronger.”
Williamson then scored 31 points and the game-winning bucket against UNC while also throwing down several electrifying dunks. Against Florida State, where he had “only” 21 points, his best play was actually a 50-foot rocket of a bounce pass that hit Duke point guard Tre Jones in stride for a layup.
“You can put him down as one of the greatest athletes that ever has ever come through the ACC, and there have been quite a few,” said Florida State coach Leonard Hamilton, whose team upset No. 1 seed Virginia in the semifinals but like everyone else couldn’t figure out how to stop Williamson.
So this was “The Zion Tournament,” and we were fortunate to host it in Charlotte. Williamson will play again in Spectrum Center as a pro, but he’s never going to perform in another ACC tournament.
In a similar vein, we are about to see himin the NCAA tournament for the first and only time. Given the money awaiting him — and the risk of further injuries — it would be nuts for Zion to stay at Duke another year.
His coach, Mike Krzyzewski, praised Charlotte as a venue after the tournament ended Saturday night. “Charlotte did a great job,” Coach K said. “This arena did a great job.”
Now, in college basketball terms, the city of Charlotte will rest a little.
Neither Davidson nor Winthrop nor UNC Charlotte will make the NCAA tournament field this season. Charlotte won’t host any of the games either. The Spectrum Center is about to get back to normal, serving as the host for the NBA’s Charlotte Hornets as they try to save their iffy shot at the playoffs.
Our month in the basketball spotlight has ended. But it sure was fun while it lasted.