CHARLOTTE, N.C. — For the first time since his left sneaker split open 30 seconds after tipoff of a game last month, the Duke superstar Zion Williamson took the court on Thursday night, helping his team to an 84-72 victory over Syracuse in the quarterfinals of the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament.
Showing no signs of the knee injury sustained when his shoe exploded, Williamson dominated the game, scoring 29 points as he made all 13 of his shots from the field. He also had 14 rebounds, five steals and a block.
“I come ready to kill every game,” Williamson told ESPN after the game.
He continued with this theme later in a news conference and dismissed suggestions, which arose after the injury, that he might not return to the Duke lineup and would instead rehabilitate his knee and just prepare for the N.B.A. draft in June.
“Everybody has their right to their own opinion,” he said, “but I knew I was coming back the whole time.”
Duke (27-5), which struggled in Williamson’s absence, will meet its archrivals, the North Carolina Tar Heels (27-5), in a Friday semifinal. The third-ranked Tar Heels have won this season’s two previous matchups against the No. 5 Blue Devils, though Williamson missed most of the first showdown — when his Nike sneaker came apart — and all of the second.
Williamson won the opening tip-off and scored the Blue Devils’ first points on an inside layup. Barely two minutes had gone by when he brought Duke fans in attendance to their feet, intercepting a Syracuse pass and taking it all the way to the other end for a thunderous dunk.
Later there was another steal-and-dunk. And nine rebounds. And five steals. And that was just in the first half, when Williamson led all players with 21 points on 9-for-9 shooting.
As Syracuse kept the game close in the second half, Williamson kept refusing to miss, while showing essential energy on defense.
And if you were wondering: Williamson wore Nikes on Thursday, a model named for the Boston Celtics star Kyrie Irving, who played one season at Duke. The sneaker that split was a Paul George signature Nike.
“The shoes were incredible this game,” Williamson said afterward.
It also presented a more immediate problem for Duke: A national title contender, the Blue Devils were suddenly without their best player, the freshman who is expected to be the No. 1 overall pick in the N.B.A. draft.
Before Williamson’s injury, the Blue Devils were 23-2 and ranked No. 1 in the country. In the three weeks between then and tipoff against Syracuse, they dropped to No. 5 while going 3-3, including the loss to the Tar Heels on the night of the sneaker disaster.
Duke announced hours before Thursday’s game that Williamson would return against Syracuse (now 20-13), which had beaten Duke in Durham, N.C., at a time when the Blue Devils’ star was healthy.
With Williamson at full strength or even close to it, Duke should be a favorite to win the national championship, which would be its first since 2015 and the sixth of Coach Mike Krzyzewski’s career.
Duke is also nearly a lock to be no lower than a No. 2 seed in the national tournament bracket, though by the time the field is announced on Sunday, the selection committee might have extrapolated Duke’s power with a healthy Williamson forward and slotted it as a top seed.