- The Washington Times
Sunday, March 24, 2019

The biggest attraction in college basketball is officially coming to Capital One Arena.

With a thrilling 77-76 thrilling victory Sunday over UCF, Zion Willamson and the Duke Blue Devils advanced to the Sweet Sixteen — meaning they’ll invade the District next weekend for the NCAA Tournament East Regional semifinals. They’ll meet Virginia Tech on Friday after the Hokies prevailed 67-58 on Sunday against Liberty.

Virginia Tech wasn’t the only team from the state to advance. Virginia’s pack-line defense limited Oklahoma to just 36.5 percent shooting in a 63-51 win to advance to the Sweet Sixteen. The Cavaliers will move on to the South Regional semifinal on Thursday in Louisville, Kentucky.

Against UCF, Williamson showed exactly why he has captured the nation’s attention. With his overwhelming size and athleticism, the 6-foot-8, 285-pound freshman bullied his way to 32 points — and helped the Blue Devils rally late.

Down three, Williamson made a pivotal layup with 14 seconds left that set up Duke’s go-ahead basket. By chance, the 18-year-old missed the game-tying free throw, though R.J. Barrett grabbed the offensive rebound and scored.

Just as crucial, Williamson’s basket also fouled out UCF’s Tacko Fall, a 7-foot-6 center whose size could have helped the Knights in the final seconds.

Capital One Arena will also host Friday’s other East Regional semifinal — a Sweet Sixteen matchup between LSU and Michigan State.

On Saturday, LSU prevailed, 69-67, in a barnburner over Maryland. Tigers point guard Tremont Waters drove by Maryland freshman Jalen Smith to score the game-winning layup with 1.6 seconds left. Maryland’s last-second heave was off the mark, ending their tournament hopes.

For the Terrapins, the loss was particularly brutal. They had erased a 13-point deficit and on the possession before Waters’ go-ahead bucket, Smith hit a game-tying 3-pointer. Smith told reporters Waters’ layup was “on me,” but coach Mark Turgeon said the “kid just made a heck of a play.

“It’s a crazy game,” said Turgeon, who last reached the Sweet Sixteen in 2016. “You know, I’m really proud of my group. We didn’t quit, and we never quit all year. We’ve played hard. We played a really good basketball team. It was hard to score against them. But basketball is crazy.”

Michigan State, meanwhile, cruised to the next round with a 70-50 win over Big Ten rival Minnesota on Saturday. Sophomore forward Xavier Tillman (14 points) and junior guard Cassius Winston (13 points) helped the Spartans reached their first regional semifinal since 2015.

That wasn’t the only blowout of the weekend. Midwest Region top seed North Carolina dominated Washington, 81-59, on Sunday, setting up a matchup with fifth seed Auburn. The Tar Heels held Washington to just 38.3 percent shooting and freshman forward Nassir Little impressed with 20 points off the bench.

A day earlier, West Regional fourth seed Florida State beat down No. 13 Murray State in a 92-60 win. Murray State’s Ja Morant, projected to be a top 3 pick in the NBA draft this summer, wasn’t enough to force the upset.

Other lopsided results from Saturday included a 64-49 Michigan win over Florida, an 89-75 Auburn victory over Kansas and an 87-61 Purdue smackdown of Villanova.

For fans hoping to see drama, Sunday’s South Regional matchup between Tennessee and Iowa delivered. Tennessee led by 21 points at halftime and by as many as 25, but Iowa fought back to eventually force overtime. Tennessee coach Rick Barnes made a controversial decision to keep leading scorer Admiral Scofield, who had four fouls, on the bench during overtime.

The move didn’t backfire, however, and the Volunteers eked out an 83-77 win.

Barnes told reporters afterward that Schofield requested to be benched, so his teammate, Kyle Alexander, could be on the floor instead.

“With four fouls, he knew they were gonna come right at him,” Barnes said. “And he said, ‘Coach, I can’t guard the way I need to guard. So you gotta leave Kyle in.’”

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