WIlliamson's injury, a mild knee sprain, puts spell over Duke-UNC

North Carolina Duke Basketball-4
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Duke's Zion Williamson (1) falls to the floor with an injury while chasing the ball with North Carolina's Luke Maye (32) during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in Durham, N.C., Wednesday, Feb. 20, 2019. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

North Carolina Duke Basketball-3

Sports Writer

Thursday, February 21, 2019

DURHAM — For Duke basketball, after the loss to No. 8 North Carolina that was dwarfed by Zion Williamson’s left knee injury 36 seconds into Wednesday night’s mega matchup, the cruelest bit of symbolism could be found not only in the empty chair in front Williamson’s locker afterwards, but also in the occupied chair next to his.

In it sat freshman Joey Baker, who, as is tradition, has given his seat after games this season to walk-on Mike Buckmire, Williamson’s unofficial spokesperson who sits idly beside Williamson, playfully answering those inquiries the star defers.

But on this night, in a sullen locker room still shell-shocked by the contest’s first minute, Buckmire and his unofficial client were absent.

The final result from Durham was an 88-72 victory for North Carolina, the largest such win at Cameron Indoor Stadium for the Tar Heels since 1989. It was the eighth time that Roy Williams has beaten a No. 1 seed. It was the first time he’s accomplished that with Barack Obama, a friend of Williams’ who was in attendance, looking on.

And the verdict on Williamson, who injured his left knee trying to plant from the top of the key in the first minute, bursting through his sneaker, was a mild knee sprain, said Mike Krzyzewski after the game. There is no timetable yet for his return.

“The game — we’re not going to draw any conclusions from this game, except that we have a loss,” Krzyzewski said. “ … I’d rather not talk about what we’re going to do. I’d rather talk about what just happened, because we’ll try to figure out what we’re going to do. I don’t have that answer, obviously you lose a national player of the year candidate, you’re going to have to — there are going to be gaps.”

Without their player of the year candidate, the Blue Devils fell behind by 10 points at halftime and by 22 points with 15 minutes left, never able to conjure the run the 9,314 in attendance stuck around for.

Without Williamson, Cam Reddish scored 27 and R.J. Barrett scored 33, a combined 60 points on a combined 45 shots, most of which came of necessity rather than flow of the game. Those two missed 16 3-pointers, and the Blue Devils were 8-of-39 from deep overall. 

The next highest scorer after Reddish and Barrett was Javin DeLaurier, with six.

“Obviously, it hit all of us once he went down, especially how early in the game it was, like, literally first play,” said Jordan Goldwire, who played eight minutes off the bench. “It was obviously a tremendous loss but we just tried to look forward.”

The message from Krzyzewski during the first huddle after the injury?

“This is who we have,” Goldwire said, recalling his coach’s pep talk. “Let’s go out there and play hard.”

And they did, said Krzyzewski after the game, but the unfamiliarity matched against a team and a roster North Carolina has built over the course of a few years, was a mismatch.

Grad student Cameron Johnson finished the game 11-of-17 for the Tar Heels, finishing with 26 points, but the most overwhelming stat line came from fourth-year player Luke Maye, who had 30 points on 14-of-24 shooting and 15 rebounds. Freshman Coby White, who predicted a UNC victory earlier this week, had nine points and Garrison Brooks added 14. The Tar Heels shot just 2-of-20 from 3-point rage but were 36-of-55 from inside the arc. 

“You go in, you gameplan, and 36 seconds in, one of your key guys goes out. It was tough for us to bounce back. North Carolina really punched us. It was tough,” Barrett said.

Williamson entered the game averaging 29 minutes in 25 contests; the only conference game in which he’s missed meaningful minutes was against Florida State, when he was inadvertently poked in the eye.

“It’s our first time playing without him this year,” said Tre Jones, who played all 40 minutes, finishing with three points and five assists. “We were definitely not used to that, but we’re not going to make that our excuse for the night.”

The buildup to this game was injected with a jolt of energy with the addition of the transcendent star in Williamson. Wednesday was likely the only time he, Barrett and Reddish will play the Tar Heels in Durham.

The atmosphere remained — and so did the people — until the final score was packaged, sent, signed and delivered, but the night was changed tangibly in that first minute. And, in a masterful game by Maye, in the largest victory for his team at Cameron Indoor in 30 years, where White promised a win and helped his team deliver, the knee tweak that sprouted from the busted shoe was the resonant national story.

“When the big fella goes out, it changes a lot of stuff for them,” Williams said. “Zion Williamson, I’ve never seen anything like him. That was a huge blow for them... I hated that part because he’s such a wonderful kid.”