Zion living up to hype in Columbia regional

COLUMBIA – The crowd at Colonial Life Arena for the NCAA Tournament first-round game between No. 1 overall seed Duke and East Regional No. 16 seed North Dakota State was waiting for that one moment to explode.

After all, the overwhelming majority were there to see Blue Devil one-and-done phenom Zion Williamson do something out of the ordinary, even those Bison fans who came almost all the way across the country to cheer on their underdog squad. They were there cheering for their squad, but they were wanting to be part of the Zion Experience.

It didn’t really happen in the first half. Duke trailed most of the first half before pulling out to a 31-27 lead at halftime. Williamson was in double digits, but had just one dunk, a rather mundane run-of-the-mill flush for someone who has been a social media sensation for three years prior during his time at Spartanburg Day.

However, the moment finally came at the start of the second half. The 6-foot-7-inch, 285-pound Williamson went by a pair of defenders for a layup that drew a foul put the Blue Devils up by six.

Not the best free throw shooter in the world, Williamson missed the shot. However, no one bothered to put a body on him. Bad, bad mistake.

Williamson retrieved the loose ball, took one step, cocked his left arm back and threw down a thunderous dunk. Far from his best work, but it was what was needed to set the CLA crowd off, as well as light a fire under Williamson and his Duke teammates.

The Blue Devils scored 38 points within the first 10 minutes of the second half and never looked back. And the party was on.

If the slam dunk off the missed free throw was the icing, Williamson did something a few plays later that was the candle on top of the cake. He outran 5-11, 190 Vinnie Shahid for a loose ball, tipping it ahead for a steal. He dribbled behind his back, using his hand on the floor to regain his balance and go in for a reverse layup.

Having had the chance to see Williamson play in the SCISA state championship the past two years at Sumter County Civic Center, it was easy to see the athleticism in the young man. Of course, he was head and shoulders above the talent at that level, and it was pretty much the case when he played AAU ball as well.

One couldn’t help but wonder if that talent would translate to the college game, what with Williamson signing with Duke and being a part of such a heralded recruiting class. Remember, he was supposed to be the No. 3 recruit in this class, but he is no doubt the leader of the pack for the Blue Devils.

“Probably one of the best athletes I’ve seen with my own eyes,” Shahid said of Williamson.

I second that.

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