WASHINGTON – Zion Williamson described his freshman season as a movie.
“Lights, camera, action, ever since we arrived on campus,” he said.
This feature film had a heartbreaking ending for Williamson and the top-seeded Duke Blue Devils as they were denied a Final Four appearance, losing to second-seeded Michigan State 68-67 in the East Regional final.
“This season has been a movie, and it’s one of the movies not with the best outcome,” he said. “It’s been a great movie. I’m glad I could be a part of it.”
The charismatic Williamson was everything everyone wanted, from the beginning of the year until the final game of his freshman season – everything and more actually, bringing unbridled joy and excitement to college basketball with his astonishing highlights.
He was so close to adding even more joy and excitement to the season.
Williamson had 24 points, 14 rebounds, three steals and three blocks – so many of them worthy of another highlight tape, like jumping from the foul line to block a three-point shot.
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In the game’s final minutes, he delivered an assist on R.J. Barrett’s three-pointer and converted a power move at the rim, giving Duke a 66-63 lead with 1:41 left in the game.
It looked like Duke was headed to the Final Four for the first time since 2015. But Michigan State’s veteran players and composure finished off the Blue Devils with a Xavier Tillman’s layup and a Kenny Goins three-pointer with 34 seconds remaining.
“These guys have been an incredible group for me to coach,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said, “especially at this time in my career to be around a group that you love being around every day that have accomplished so much and really have had to lead the whole year with the tension and the schedule and everything else, and they’ve handled things so beautifully.”
He added: “To me it’s disappointing (to lose). It’s not a disappointment year. Like, there’s a big difference.”
Not only did the loss end Duke’s season, it was likely the last game Williamson plays in a Duke uniform. After telling reporters this was the last time these Duke players play a game together, Williamson was asked if that was any indication of his future.
The projected No. 1 pick in the 2019 NBA draft if he leaves Duke, Williamson didn’t run from the question or say he hasn’t made up his mind.
“It’s obviously a high chance that I’m going to enter the draft,” Williamson said. “It’s not something I’m going to make official because it’s something I’ve got to talk to my parents about.”
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Williamson has handled the pressure and exposure with uncommon grace, even in defeat. He gets it, and that’s going to serve him well in the NBA whenever that is. All weekend here, Krzyzewski raved about Williamson, the person.
“Just being together on and off the court, that’s what made us have so much fun on the court because we were always together off the court,” Williamson said. “Not even freshmen hanging out. It was the whole team. The brotherhood is something real. It’s not propaganda or social media. We all love each other and played for each other.”
Krzyzewski has coached talented freshmen before, but he also knows how unusual this season was. Barrett and Cam Reddish are projected lottery picks if they decide to enter the draft. But it has been years, even decades, since someone captivated college basketball like Williamson, and Krzyzewski may not experience it again even with the five-star recruits he brings to Duke.
“It’s been a remarkable year for these young men. I’m not sure another group will have it – a year with all of this,” Krzyzewski said.
But Sunday’s game was also another example of how difficult it is to win a championship with a team dominated by freshmen. Of course it’s been done – Kentucky in 2012 and Duke in 2015.
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Neither school has been to the Final Four since 2015 – four consecutive years now without the Blue Devils or Wildcats playing on the final weekend.
Michigan State’s experience and composure ruled. The Spartans had seven turnovers, Duke 17 – five by Williamson, seven by Barrett. When Michigan State needed a play, it had junior point guard Cassius Winston to make a play. He had 20 points, 10 assists and one turnover while getting hounded by Duke freshman ball hawk Tre Jones.
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Senior Xavier Tillman had 19 points and nine rebounds and forced Williamson into a 10-for-19 shooting game, with six of those shots coming from 3-point range.
“It is an experience thing along with talent,” Krzyzewski said of Winston. “And he is as good a player as we’ve played against. I mean, he’s a big-time player. And I thought they played older than we did, you know. But that’s happened to us. We are young.”
And the Blue Devils will be young again next year. They bring in another stellar recruiting class led five-star center Vernon Carey, five-star forward Wendell Moore and four-star guard Boogie Ellis.
And Duke will try to do it all over again.
It just won’t be the same with Zion Williamson.