Romanticized talk about a string of individual performances in March is typically reserved for the NCAA tournament. There are exceptions though.
In 1995, the ACC gave us the Randolph Childress tournament.
The 2006 Big East tournament will forever be remembered as the Gerry McNamara tournament.
The entirety of March, 2011 is defined by Kemba Walker. That journey began, of course, with a vicious step-back game-winner, and ultimately a five wins in five days run to the Big East tournament championship.
Now, 2019 has blessed us with “The Zion Tournament.”
Some will argue that Friday night’s epic semifinal between Duke and North Carolina will be remembered with every bit as much reverence as Zion Williamson’s individual effort over the last three days. Others will say that whatever Williamson does in the NCAA tournament, good or bad, will largely wipe away the memory of his performance in Charlotte. Perhaps, but my belief is that if we revisit this debate five years from now, history won’t be on the side of the detractors.
Before this week, no freshman in the history of the ACC had ever won the league’s Player of the Year award and its tournament Most Outstanding Player honor in the same season. That Williamson was able to accomplish the latter feat after having sat out the past 22 days with the most notorious knee injury of 2019 is the most remarkable anecdote in the latest chapter of his bourgeoning college legacy.
That chapter began Thursday.
Thursday — ACC Tournament Quarterfinals: Duke vs. Syracuse
After three weeks of countless speculation, a lengthy national debate, and zero seconds of playing time logged by the most talked about college basketball player in recent memory, Williamson returned to the court for third-seeded Duke’s quarterfinal matchup with sixth-seeded Syracuse. All the freshman sensation did in his return was give arguably the greatest individual performance in the history of the ACC tournament.
With the rest of Duke’s talented starting lineup struggling on offense for most of the night, Williamson was perfect. Literally. His 13-for-13 performance from the field made him the first player in the 66-year history of the ACC tournament to attempt more than 12 shots without a miss. He finished with a game-high 29 points, but his impact — and his history-making — was felt in areas other than the scoring column.
Williamson became just the third player in the history of Duke basketball, and the first since Christian Laettner, to finish a game with at least 25 points, 10 rebounds and five steals. Besides Laettner and Williamson, Grant Hill is the only other Blue Devil to accomplish the feat.
Friday — ACC Tournament Semifinals: Duke vs. North Carolina
Entering the week, there was a very real possibility that Williamson’s only participation in college basketball’s highest-profile rivalry was going to be 33 seconds of playing time and America’s most discussed wardrobe malfunction in a good 15 years. Duke and North Carolina both cruising to quarterfinal victories ensured this wouldn’t be the case.
Even in a game overflowing with future NBA standouts, otherworldly athleticism and shot making that made you stand up and scream even if you were watching alone in your living room, Williamson stood out. Against a Tar Heel team loaded with perimeter scorers but limited on frontcourt presence, Williamson dominated the paint, blocking and altering shots, controlling the glass, and finishing time after time around the rim.
Never was this dominance more evident than in the closing moments of what would prove to be a 74-73 Duke victory.
With under 1:30 to play and the Blue Devils clinging to a one-point lead, it appeared as though Luke Maye — the ACC’s preseason Player of the Year — had an uncontested layup to swing momentum back in the direction of the Tar Heels. That’s when Zion did what only a mack truck bitten by a radioactive spider can do and exploded out of nowhere to get a piece of Maye’s shot and keep the lead with the Devils.
A minute later, with Duke now trailing by a point, Williamson found himself in a spot typically reserved for college stars whose reputations had been built over multiple seasons. He took UNC’s Nassir Little — another likely lottery pick this summer — straight to the hole, and when his initial shot caromed off the front rim, he called on his brute strength to produce the game’s final two points.
Williamson finished with a game-high 31 points on 13-of-19 shooting, and a team-high 11 rebounds. Those numbers, and his two key plays in the clutch, helped Duke rid itself of the bad taste of two Zion-less losses to North Carolina in the regular season that came by a combined 25 points.
Saturday — ACC Tournament Championship: Duke vs. Florida State
He proved he could do it in the halfcourt against the Syracuse zone, then he proved he could do it in transition against the up-tempo Tar Heels, now it was time to prove he could do it against the tallest and most physically imposing frontcourt in the ACC.
If there’s any team in America best suited to limit Zion to a pedestrian stat line, it’s Florida State. The Seminoles start a 7’4 center in Christ Koumadje and a versatile 6’8 forward in Phil Cofer, and off the bench they bring their leading scorer (and future pro), 6’10 Mfiondu Kabengele. These dudes dominate the “walking off the bus” game like no other team in college basketball. They’re also pretty damn good at the playing the game too. Entering Saturday night, Florida State had won 14 of its last 15, with its lone loss over that span coming on the road against the equally hot North Carolina.
Williamson used Saturday night to display his full arsenal. There were dunks, there were jump shots, there were blocks, and there was a ridiculous left-handed bounce pass where he appeared for a brief moment to be some beautiful hybrid of Larry and Magic Johnson.
When the dust settled, Williamson had more points (21), rebounds (9) and steals (4) than any other player who participated in the game. His 7-for-11 shooting effort allowed him to finish the tournament shooting 76.7 percent (33-for-43) from the field, and averaging 27.0 points and 10.0 rebounds.
Those numbers coming against three of the best teams in the country. On consecutive nights. After not playing a single second for more than three weeks. That’s absurd.
Or at least it would be absurd if we were talking about a mere basketball mortal. This wasn’t absurd, this was Zion Williamson, and this was his tournament.