With three minutes left in the second half of Duke’s 75-73 Sweet 16 win over Virginia Tech, a play so ridiculous happened that I yelled and clapped and laughed, all in one single motion. It was the only appropriate reaction—a quick journey through the Three Stages of Zion Fever, if you will. The play that triggered that response came out of nowhere: Zion Williamson turned the corner on a Hokie defender who may as well have been a tackling dummy, and then dunked a ball so hard that the rim looked like it would collapse upon impact. We are running out of words to describe Zion, so sometimes unintelligible sounds will have to do.
Williamson, who did not play in the Blue Devils’ loss to Virginia Tech earlier this season, finished the night with 23 points, six rebounds, and three blocks. He made one 3 and missed only three of his 14 shots. But defining Zion’s feats with numbers, though impressive, feels downright irresponsible. Why focus on a box score when instead you can feast your eyes on the glory of this supernatural dunk:
“Zion can do amazing things, he can actually jump higher than Grant [Hill],” Coach K said postgame in reference to the famous Hill alley-oop finish in the 1991 NCAA tournament. It was fitting then, that Hill was the one calling the game, the one left speechless when he tried to describe what Zion was doing.
Just look at this still shot:
Zion’s body contortions when jumping belong on the Sistine Chapel ceiling. pic.twitter.com/x3yxNLs7eO— Paolo Uggetti (@PaoloUggetti) March 30, 2019
In that image, Zion is essentially performing gravity-free ballet, while also having the wherewithal to catch a ball in midair and deposit it perfectly inside the hoop. My apologies to Tre Jones, who had a great game (more on that in a bit), but that was a bad pass—even if it did end up fantastically showcasing the length of Zion’s reach.
Just a few minutes after that play, Zion was playing fastbreak defense on Tech guard Justin Robinson. Robinson pulled off a hesitation dribble that led him past Williamson and toward what he thought was an easy layup. Zion recovered faster than Robinson could finish and he swatted the ball into the stands. Somehow, that was only his second-most impressive block of the night. Here was the first:
Combine the entirety of Zion’s Friday night highlights, and you get a makeshift combine performance in one game. No need to bring out the measuring stick because the eye test provides more than enough evidence. It feels like as the stage gets bigger, he only jumps higher—and in the process, he’s evangelizing a wider net of fans who are tuning in to see what the fuss is all about. This time, they also got a competitive game out of it.
Without Cam Reddish, who sat out the game with a left leg injury, Zion needed more help than usual—and he got it, from both Jones and R.J. Barrett. Jones was clutch throughout the game, dishing eight assists, adding 22 points, and having an all-around performance that was reminiscent of his brother Tyus’s NCAA showcase in 2015. Barrett took the most shots on the team, and wasn’t exactly efficient (he finished 7-of-17), but added 11 assists. Duke got only four points from its bench while the Hokies reserves combined for 16. Despite Zion’s feats, Duke’s margin for error at the end of the game was slim. Virginia Tech somehow managed to stay in the contest even though they had a field-goal-less stretch of over four minutes starting at the 12-minute, 40-second mark of the second half. After Duke struggled to ice the game from the line, Tech got one more chance to tie the game and send it into overtime:
Virginia Tech got this freakin' close pic.twitter.com/vMKynfTLc4— CJ Fogler (@cjzero) March 30, 2019
With 1.1 seconds left, Buzz Williams drew up a perfect play. The screen was set and the lob was immaculate, but the finish was not. Duke has now been as close to elimination as a team can get without actually being out of the tournament twice, after the Blue Devils narrowly escaped a last-second shot from UCF on Sunday. In the end, Duke—and most importantly, Zion—won.
Put the eye-popping plays aside, and the wonder of Zion isn’t just that he plays like no other player in recent memory, but that he can evoke such positive emotion onto a program that has long been a point of hatred in college basketball. Casual fans find themselves rooting for the Blue Devils because if they lose, that means Zion will be gone, too. And while the NBA can’t wait to inherit him, there’s something special about watching him transcend the collegiate system. Maybe we’re not going through three stages of Zion Fever, but four: The last one just won’t hit us until he’s actually gone.