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Zion Williamson Transcended College Basketball, but Couldn’t Stop Michigan State

The Spartans outlasted Duke in a thriller to earn the last spot in the Final Four

NCAA Basketball Tournament - East Regional - Washington DC Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images

Zion Williamson’s freshman season, which will be his only season, is over; Duke fell to Michigan State in the Elite Eight, 68-67. Yet Williamson is how this March, hell, all of this season, will be remembered. He established himself as the story of the 2019 tournament even before his performance Sunday, which was perhaps his best: 24 points, 14 rebounds, two assists, three steals, and three blocks.

The Blue Devils faced a one-possession game in the final eight seconds of regulation for the third consecutive game. In their second-round game against Central Florida, an RJ Barrett putback gave Duke a decisive one-point lead with 11 seconds remaining, and in the following game against Virginia Tech, Hokie guard Ahmed Hill missed what would have been a game-tying layup with one second left on the clock. But Michigan State managed to get the lead—on a Kenny Goins go-ahead 3 with 39 seconds left—and hold onto it, as Barrett missed the first of two free throws with Duke down 66-68, and the Blue Devils defense botched their assignments on the final inbound of the game.

While Duke’s good fortune finally ran out, Tom Izzo’s began. He’s lost to Mike Krzyzewski 11 times in his career and had bested him only once before Sunday. Yes, the Blue Devils didn’t score for the final 5:24 of the first half, and Barrett doomed his team by going into an iso-mode that Kobe Bryant or Carmelo Anthony would be proud of for all the wrong reasons, but Izzo still beat a team with three future lottery picks. Next, Izzo’s Spartans will face Texas Tech.

After the game, Tracy Wolfson asked Izzo what it meant to return to the Final Four, where Izzo has also developed a bad reputation (he’s gone 2-5 there in his career), by knocking off Duke. “You’ve struggled against [them] in the past,” she said.

“One and 11 is a struggle?” Izzo asked. “That’s worse than a struggle. But you know what it is: To be the best, you’ve got to beat the best.”

Williamson is the best player in college basketball. He transcended the one-and-done experience. He made 41.2 percent of his 3-point attempts over the course of the tournament, and did so between shooting over defenders in the lane and dunking them into broken parts. But if you missed the Blue Devils’ run, one of impossible luck and thrills and Barrett misses and Williamson glory, you haven’t missed your chance to latch onto the chunkiest unicorn in history. Williamson seems ready to be on prime time for the next decade. Perhaps even the decade after that.

Williamson was so dynamic that even lifelong Duke haters had no choice but to adore him and his ability to break time and space. Take this play from Sunday’s loss when Williamson almost jumped into the backboard:

Williamson had many of those moments on Sunday, but even they weren’t enough to continue Duke’s run. For Duke fans and Krzyzewski, that’s a tough reality to accept; this might be the best team that Duke fields before Coach K’s retirement. But for Michigan State, that’s as good a reason as any to feel confident heading into the Final Four.