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Zion Williamson Wills Duke to an Opening Win

It should not be possible for a human being listed at 6 feet 7 inches and 285 pounds to outrun a guard while chasing down a loose ball, to fool him with a behind-the-back dribble and then to glide in for a layup, but Zion Williamson warps logic and good sense every time his size-15 feet step onto a basketball court.

The final score of Duke’s victory against North Dakota State does not suggest as much, but there was a juncture in the teams’ East Region game Friday night when the outcome was theoretically in doubt. The No. 1 over all seed Blue Devils led by — gasp — only 4 points at halftime.

Duke ended up trampling the No. 16 Bison by 85-62, after leading by as many as 31, because of a sequence early in the second half in which Williamson unleashed the breadth of his singular repertory: he made a shot while being fouled; missed the free throw but grabbed the ball and dunked it; rebounded a wayward North Dakota shot and started a possession that ended in a Duke 3-pointer; and then stole the ball, ran it down and dropped it in the basket. All within 58 seconds.

It was 40-27 then, and it was over because Williamson, the Blue Devils’ bulldozing ballet dancer, had decreed it was. Williamson finished with 25 points on 12-of-16 shooting, and another Duke freshman, R.J. Barrett, added 26.

“Before that even happened, my teammates were in my ear,” said Williamson, who relished playing in Columbia, S.C., about 95 miles from his hometown, Spartanburg. “They were just like, ‘be me,’ like, ‘be myself.’ When they’re constantly telling you to be yourself, it just gives you energy, and I just try to bring energy for my team. I think in those situations I just happened to be in the right spot.”

By showcasing its powers of devastation, Duke — though it wobbled early, like the other two top seeds who played Friday, Virginia and North Carolina, and a No. 2, Tennessee — evaded the upsets that pervaded what was a more appealing second day of the tournament. The minor surprises — in the South, No. 10 Iowa beat No. 7 Cincinnati, 79-72, and No. 9 Oklahoma bludgeoned No. 8 Mississippi, 95-72, while No. 9 Washington whipped No. 8 Utah State, 78-61, in the Midwest — paled against the wins that had the capacity to upend the bracket.

In dispatching No. 4 Kansas State by 70-64 in the South, No. 13 University of California, Irvine preceded victories by No. 12 Oregon, which walloped No. 5 Wisconsin by 72-54 in the same region, and by No. 12 Liberty, which stunned No. 5 Mississippi State by 80-76 in the East.

For a spell Friday, North Dakota State envisioned joining them, too.

“It just never felt like you were going to get beat until they really got going,” Coach David Richman said.

And by they, he was referencing Williamson, who has few, if any, peers around the nation, let alone in the Bison’s Summit League. Asked about the difficulties in preparing for a player like Williamson, and with all of two days’ notice, Richman interrupted the reporter: “Is there any guys like him besides him?”

For the uninitiated, the best nickname in the N.C.A.A. tournament hails from U.C. Irvine: the Anteaters — though apparently the cognoscenti prefer an abridged moniker.

“We usually like to take off the ‘Ant’ and just say ‘Eaters,’” guard Evan Leonard said. “So I feel like Eater Nation, stuff like that, is pretty cool.”

Also pretty cool: claiming the first significant upset of the tournament. The Anteaters — Eaters, excuse us — ousted Kansas State to capture the program’s first N.C.A.A. tournament victory.

Indeed Irvine had only one previous appearance — losing to Louisville in 2015 — and its recent lineage is littered with strong regular seasons followed by flameouts in the Big West Conference tournament. But in a dreadful season for California’s men’s teams, one in which standard-bearers like Stanford, U.C.L.A. and U.S.C. didn’t even qualify for the National Invitation Tournament, the Anteaters have represented the Golden State with distinction, going 31-5 with 17 straight wins.

“We have visions of potentially growing into something greater — you know, every player dreams of that, every program sort of dreams of that,” Coach Russell Turner said. “This was a big step toward that tonight. You know, U.C. Irvine, folks, I don’t know, live in the shadow, live like little brothers to U.C.L.A. and S.C. and maybe some others: Cal, Stanford, San Diego State. Maybe like little brothers. Well, little brother has been in the weight room, getting better, getting ready for a chance like this.”

U.C. Irvine had not lost since Jan. 16, and to extend that streak, the Anteaters summoned critical 3-pointers from two juniors, Leonard and Max Hazzard. Leonard made his shots on consecutive possessions to put U.C. Irvine ahead to stay for the final nine minutes, and Hazzard drilled a shot from the corner with about 90 seconds remaining to push its lead to 66-61. Kansas State, which won a share of the Big 12 title, missed its all-Big 12 forward Dean Wade (injured foot).

“I mean, if you studied or watched us, obviously it’s a huge difference,” Coach Bruce Weber said. “But no excuses.”

Virginia spent the last year waiting for its chance to atone for its unprecedented early exit from the 2018 N.C.A.A. tournament, when it became the first No. 1 seed to lose to a No. 16. When that chance arrived, the Cavaliers sleepwalked through the first half against Gardner-Webb and found themselves confronting potential embarrassment again.

“That will always be part of our story,” Coach Tony Bennett said. “I understand that. I’m sure a lot of people thought it was going to be part of our story the second year in a row.”

Virginia persisted, though, rolling to a 71-56 victory after outscoring the Bulldogs by 21 points in the second half. De’Andre Hunter — who missed that dispiriting tournament loss to Maryland-Baltimore County last year with a hand injury — scored 23 points to lead the Cavaliers, who recognize their place in infamy but, at Bennett’s urging, have regrouped from it.

Together, they watched a video of a TED Talk given in Charlottesville, Va., of all places, in which the speaker, discussing his personal grief, said, according to Bennett, that “if you learn to use it right, it can buy you a ticket to a place that you couldn’t have gone any other way.” The junior guard Kyle Guy, who had 8 points Friday, still keeps an image of U.M.B.C.’s celebration as the screen saver on his phone and in his Twitter profile. He said an author, Joshua Medcalf, had talked to the team last year, telling the Cavaliers, “Be where your feet are.”

Even as Virginia sputtered in the first half, trailing by as many as 14, Guy said he focused on positive reinforcement. Bennett said the mood at halftime was upbeat, and he asked his assistant coaches to “uplift” players and not “panic.”

“Yes, we made some adjustments that I think helped the guys out there,” Bennett said, “but it was, you know, don’t you dare leave anything in this locker room.”

The second day of the tournament began with Iowa extending the Big Ten’s stretch of dominance, as the Hawkeyes pulled away late from Cincinnati to win, 79-72. Iowa’s victory improved the Big Ten’s record to 6-0, which was marred later when No. 5 Wisconsin lost to Oregon.

“We’ve been saying all year long that it’s the most competitive league in the country top to bottom,” Iowa Coach Fran McCaffery said. “And you sort of expect Big Ten coaches to make those kinds of statements. But the reality is we actually believe that. And so I think it’s proving it.”

The Big Ten this season lacked the elite status of the Atlantic Coast Conference, which has three No. 1 seeds in Duke, Virginia and North Carolina, and though the conference has sent seven teams to the national championship game since 2002, it hasn’t won since Michigan State claimed the title in 2000.

But its depth has been manifest so far, with two No. 10 seeds, Iowa and Minnesota, scoring minor upsets to join two imposing No. 2s, Michigan and Michigan State, and Maryland and Purdue in the second round.

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