DURHAM, N.C. – It took all of 30 seconds for a pall to spread across Cameron Indoor, one that made the 39 other minutes of the Duke-Carolina rivalry an unseemly footnote. The party let out as soon as Zion Williamson slipped at the foul line, legs sent akimbo beneath his heft. While his right knee gave, the corresponding force sent his left foot bursting out of its sneaker, rupturing the seam between fabric and sole. It seems nothing he does comes without some degree of shock value, and Williamson might as well have been unzipping a boot. He limped to the locker room, and a raucous crowd was never quite the same.
North Carolina certainly earned the 88–72 win, which sent the top of the ACC into a three-way tie, but even the staunchest of Tar Heel fans had to have understood the asterisk that came with the result. In a rivalry that never lacks for hype, this tilt was slated to be particularly juicy, much of that stemming from the prospect of watching Williamson slice through the Carolina defense and further etch himself into the decades of lore at Cameron. He has been the surest thing in all of sports this season, the way he can forcefully puppeteer a win, entertain both sides of a crowd, and send everyone home happy. You couldn’t help but feel this was a lost chapter. On a night where tickets could run you four figures on the resale market, the one certainty was that nobody got their money’s worth, including former president Barack Obama (who, doubtless, attended for free).
North Carolina’s experience and skill level took hold right away, as seniors Luke Maye and Cameron Johnson combined for 56 points in a game that never felt particularly close. “We were knocked back. You could see it,” Mike Krzyzewski said of Williamson’s injury, which visibly launched the Blue Devils well out of orbit in a matter of minutes. “We dug ourselves a huge hole against an outstanding team.”
Krzyzewski said Williamson’s injury was a “mild knee sprain,” and that his leg was structurally intact. Although it’s unclear how long he’ll be out, that much is incredible news for the greater state of things, and leaves open the possibility college basketball’s best player returns in March, or earlier. Whether he should is a different question, one that will reverberate for the immediate future, until Williamson returns, or doesn’t. But as far as short-term takeaways were concerned, well, this was a bummer.
“Obviously, it hurts losing a guy that talented, especially that early in the game,” said Duke’s Javin DeLaurier, whose experience had to embody the night’s events. Thrust into critical minutes off the bench, he’d set the tone for the Blue Devils, flinging himself at loose balls, altering shots and scrapping for steals, and paid for it by catching an errant elbow.
“[Zion’s] shoe busts, he goes down funky,” he recounted, slouched at his locker, left eye deeply bloodshot. “Everything we’d done to prepare for the matchup, that throws it out the window.”
“We just have to regroup, figure out what this means,” Krzyzewski said. “We’re not going to draw any conclusions from this game except for the fact we have a loss.” Removing Williamson from the lineup for any period of time creates real concerns, beginning with Duke’s lack of other scorers beyond R.J. Barrett and Cam Reddish. But the Blue Devils’ first true checkpoint comes Saturday at Syracuse, who already beat them in Durham. With less than 48 hours to game plan, their mettle will lay bare, one way or another. From a pure competitive standpoint, there’s a new level of intrigue as Carolina surges into their final five games tied with Duke and Virginia, and with a healthy dose of opportunity.
Still, the inarguably weird night was all about Williamson, who has been college basketball’s nightly salvation and can no longer be taken for granted. The void he leaves, for however long he leaves it, tears at the fabric of the entire season. Whether he should be playing, whether he should be paid to do it, whether he should have to be playing college at all—those questions miss the point. Consider instead what could have been the game of the season felt largely joyless, the larger possibility of March without him, and the twilight zone set to engulf college hoops until he returns. Time to wait.