SportsPulse: Selection Sunday is just days away. USA TODAY’s Scott Gleeson tells you the teams that still have work to do this championship weekend. USA TODAY
CHARLOTTE — They stood elbow-to-elbow on the steps surrounding the players’ tunnel at Spectrum Center, some of them crowding for a viewing angle, others holding cell phones high above their heads.
It isn’t often that a conference tournament produces a “remember where you were” moment, especially before the game actually starts. But there was a different energy Thursday night here at the ACC tournament, a din that followed Zion Williamson from his first emergence onto the floor to the first thunderous, above-the-rim dunk that announced his return to health to his final tally of 29 points and 14 rebounds in Duke’s 84-72 victory over Syracuse.
“Bro, you didn’t miss,” Duke guard R.J. Barrett said to a laughing Williamson as he picked up a box score in the postgame news conference, causing Williamson to cover his face with the copy in front of him.
Indeed, he didn’t.
After missing six games over a three-week stretch that sparked a national debate over whether Williamson should play again this season, the most exciting college basketball player of the decade didn’t just come back Thursday from a knee injury the way most human beings would come back from a knee injury.
Like everything with Williamson since his college career began, it was a supersized, otherworldly, 13-for-13 comeback designed to drop jaws and give NBA executives dry heaves over the May 14 draft lottery that promises to change the direction of one franchise and leave several others cursing their luck.
“There was never any pressure to rush back until I was ready,” said Williamson, who added that he never considered shutting himself down for the season. “I felt ready a few days ago and it was good to get back.”
Williamson’s performance after a 22-day layoff didn’t just remind everyone why Duke surged to No. 1 in February and has looked like the national championship favorite when fully healthy. It accentuated the gulf between Williamson and every other prospect in college basketball.
Because with Williamson, it’s not just the unique physique, the force with which he can finish around the rim or his occasional flash of skill on the perimeter. Williamson, quite simply, loves to play — a simple but essential element of the entire package…
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