CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Zion Williamson made all 13 of his shots, five on high-flying dunks, and scored 29 points in his return to lead No. 5 Duke to an 84-72 victory over Syracuse on Thursday night in the Atlantic Coast Conference quarterfinals.
RJ Barrett added 23 points and six rebounds to help Duke (27-5) set up a semifinal showdown with No. 3 North Carolina. The Tar Heels swept both games from the Blue Devils in the regular season, with Williamson injured in the first minute of the first meeting.
Williamson got off to a rousing start two minutes into the game when he stole a pass and drove the length of the floor before cocking his right hand back and throwing down a highlight-reel dunk that brought the crowd to its feet. He added three more soaring dunks in the first half — including one off an alley-oop pass from Barrett — and finished the first half with 21 points on 9-of-9 shooting and nine rebounds as Duke built a 34-28 lead.
It was Williamson’s first game since his left Nike Paul George shoe broke during a Feb. 20 game against the Tar Heels, causing him to miss nearly six full games with a sprained right knee. Williamson wore modified Nike Kyrie 4’s from Celtics star Kyrie Irving. This time the shoe was specifically designed to lend extra support to his 6-foot-7, 285-pound frame.
Duke team spokesman Mike DeGeorge described it as a standard practice for Nike with its partner schools, saying: ‘‘In special circumstances, Nike always works with schools to make sure the shoe is right.’’ Nike spokesman Mitch Germann said the company works with its programs ‘‘to ensure we are providing the best product for their athletes.’’
‘‘We’re thrilled to see Zion returning to the court,’’ Germann said in the statement. ‘‘After working closely with the Duke Basketball team to examine the issue, we are confident this was an isolated incident.’’
Irving, a former one-and-done star at Duke, was told of Williamson’s fast start after the Celtics’ win against Sacramento Thursday night.
‘‘I don’t think the shoes really make a difference, but I’m happy that he’s in a Nike brand,’’ Irving said. ‘‘He’s a special player. I’m just happy that he has some shoes that won’t deteriorate over time. He was really comfortable in the PGs. He probably wore them a little too many times or whatever the case may be. I don’t know the exact thing. But I’m just happy he’s out there helping them, playing.’’
Williamson showed no signs of any lingering knee issue and cracked a smile several times throughout the game.
Frank Howard scored 28 points, and Buddy Boeheim had 15 for Syracuse (20-13).
Despite Williamson’s highlight-reel display, the Orange battled until the end without leading scorer Tyus Battle, who missed his second straight game with a back injury.
Syracuse tied it with 13 minutes remaining on back-to-back 3-pointers from Boeheim.
But Duke wore down Syracuse down the stretch between the inside game of Williamson and the shooting of Barrett, who punctuated the win with a windmill dunk with 1:14 remaining.
Tre Jones added 15 points and eight assists for Duke.
Williamson’s mere appearance in Charlotte was enough to create a stir when he took the court for pregame warmups, with a line of reporters taking photos or shooting video under the basket of his shots and mid-speed dunks. He drew a loud cheer when he was introduced during pregame warmups, then another as he scored in the post over 7-2 defender Paschal Chukwu 90 seconds into the game.
About 30 seconds later, Williamson stole a pass and raced down for his latest high-flying highlight that sent both the Duke and non-Duke fans alike into a full roar about 30 seconds later. And by the midway point of the first half, he had thrown down two more dunks — one off an alley-oop pass from RJ Barrett — and had single-handedly outscored Syracuse 15-11.
Williamson, The Associated Press player and newcomer of the year for the ACC, even hit a 3-pointer despite shooting just 29 percent from behind the arc this year. He came in averaging 21.6 points and 8.8 rebounds.