The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Zion Williamson’s first Duke-UNC game ends prematurely after knee injury

Duke basketball player Zion Williamson’s shoe split open just 36 seconds into a Feb. 20 matchup between Duke and University of North Carolina. (Video: Reuters)

DURHAM, N.C. — Zion Williamson delighted the Cameron Crazies with pregame high-fives and a ferocious dunk in warmups, but his night ended shortly after tip-off.

Top-ranked Duke’s sensational freshman slipped awkwardly while attempting to drive to the basket in the opening minute of a highly anticipated showdown with No. 8 North Carolina on Wednesday, suffering what Coach Mike Krzyzewski said postgame was a “mild” knee sprain.

“The knee is stable,” Krzyzewski said, after the Blue Devils fell to the Tar Heels, 88-72, at Cameron Indoor Stadium. “We don’t know how long he’ll be out.”

Williamson exited with 19:24 remaining in the first half and was attended to by a member of Duke’s training staff on the bench. After a brief examination, in which the trainer appeared to be working on Williamson’s right knee, he left for the locker room and did not return.

Nike takes a beating after Zion Williamson’s shoe explodes

Shortly before halftime, Duke (23-3, 11-2 ACC) announced that Williamson’s night was over. Krzyzewski said Duke would prepare for its next opponent, Syracuse on Saturday, as if it would be without its national player of the year candidate.

“We have to come up with a game plan based on Zion not playing,” Krzyzewski said. “Hopefully he’ll be back playing some time in the near future.”

Replays showed that Williamson blew out his left shoe as he slipped on the court. The Blue Devils are sponsored by Nike, and the sneaker company drew heated attacks on Twitter shortly after the incident.

While Krzyzewski confirmed that Williamson’s shoe “burst” on the play, he added that he wasn’t sure what had happened first: the slip or the sneaker malfunction.

“I’ve seen guys bust through shoes but not sprain their knee,” Krzyzewski said. “Last game he slipped a couple times. I don’t know if he had already [injured his knee before the shoe burst]. Maybe how he fell [burst the shoe]. I don’t know. … He goes so fast. If something is slippery then boom that happened.”

Zion Williamson says he gained 100 pounds in two years, and he’s only slightly exaggerating

Nike issued a statement late Wednesday evening saying the company was “obviously concerned” about Williamson’s health while wishing him a “speedy recovery.”

“The quality and performance of our products are of utmost importance," the statement read. "While this is an isolated occurrence, we are working to identify the issue.”

In Williamson’s absence, the Tar Heels (21-5, 11-2) quickly seized momentum and took a 42-32 lead into halftime. UNC held Duke at bay throughout the second half thanks to 30 points from senior forward Luke Maye and 26 from senior guard Cameron Johnson. UNC won going away despite shooting just 2 for 20 on three-pointers, but Coach Roy Williams was quick to acknowledge the impact of Williamson’s absence.

“Everybody be honest,” Williams said. “When the big fella goes out of the game, it changes a lot of stuff for them. Zion Williamson … I’ve never seen anything like him. That’s a huge blow for them. … I hated that part of it. He’s such a wonderful kid.”

The Blue Devils struggled all night to find an offensive rhythm, shooting just 34.7 percent from the field and committing 20 turnovers. Freshman forward RJ Barrett, who played all 40 minutes in Williamson’s absence, led Duke with 33 points and 13 rebounds. Freshman forward Cam Reddish added 27 points and three rebounds.

Williamson’s injury sucked the air out of the arena, which was filled with numerous celebrities and fans who had paid upward of $3,000 for a ticket on re-selling websites. Former president Barack Obama and filmmaker Spike Lee were among the notable names in attendance for the nationally televised ACC rivalry game.

Williamson, the projected No. 1 pick in June’s NBA draft, has appeared in all 26 of Duke’s games this season. Entering Wednesday, he was averaging 22.4 points and 9.2 rebounds per game.

Read more from The Post:

A warning to college basketball: Kentucky is starting to look like Kentucky again

This NCAA tournament, getting in with a losing conference record isn’t such a stretch

Nate Oats is bullish on Buffalo building on last year’s NCAA tournament breakthrough

Kentucky rises to No. 1 seed in NCAA tournament bracket, and it could stay there

Traveling with the Terps: Dry-erase markers, no sour cream and a superstition-driven routine