Williamson and Barrett deliver for short-handed Duke

RJ Barrett leads Duke with 30 points in win vs. Virginia (1:47)

RJ Barrett goes off for 30 points as Duke edges Virginia 72-70. (1:47)

DURHAM, N.C. -- Zion Williamson delivered the highlight because this was Duke's biggest game of the season, and it wouldn't have felt right without the freshman doing something jaw-droppingly incredible. And so he pulled down a rebound, dribbled coast to coast, weaved his way through four Virginia defenders, and, while Virginia's Jay Huff slashed his arm, hammered home a monster dunk.

It's what we've come to expect: the flash, the power, the hysteria that follows.

What Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski saw, however, was the setup; that moment when Williamson, all 280 pounds of seemingly uncontrolled momentum, barreled his way through the nation's toughest defense.

"As amazing as that finish was," Krzyzewski said, "how he maneuvered -- I thought for sure he was going to lose the ball. Then, boom."

Boom. We remember the boom. But the rest of the country ought to be worried about how that fuse was lit.

Krzyzewski pointed out afterward that Williamson had been a point guard up until eighth grade, which must've been a nightmare for those other 13-year-olds. It wasn't much better for the No. 4 Cavaliers on Saturday in the Blue Devils' 72-70 victory.

RJ Barrett ran the point a bit more recently, but he was still out of position Saturday, thrust into the role because of Tre Jones' absence. If there'd been a knock on Barrett, the nation's top recruit entering the season, it's that he'd been a shoot-first player on the offensive end, and his woeful 0-for-10 stretch and 4-of-17 performance from 3 in Monday's loss to Syracuse only underscored the critique.

But here was Barrett against Virginia's smothering defense, moving the ball, setting up weaves that top-ranked Duke hadn't run all season, penetrating again and again rather than settling for the perimeter jumpers. Barrett played his best offensive game of the season when the Blue Devils (15-2, 4-1 ACC) needed it the most -- without their point guard, against an undefeated team -- and he finished with 30 points and just one turnover.

When it was over, Williamson and Barrett met at the top of the key near Virginia's basket. They hugged, tight and forceful, then slapped hands. The weight of the performance -- 79 minutes between them, 57 of the Blue Devils' 72 points, all but one of Duke's made baskets in the second half -- was obvious. But it was the raw emotion that stood out. That embrace isn't what's sold when we talk about this one-and-done superclass at Duke. These weren't two stars on a brief stopover before cashing an NBA check. This meant something, meant so much that both Barrett and Williamson found new depth to their games in order for Duke to come away with a win.

This is to take nothing from Virginia, of course. Afterward, Krzyzewski favorably compared Kyle Guy to JJ Redick, and the Cavaliers (16-1, 4-1) pushed Duke to the brink throughout the second half, with 15 lead changes and seven ties in the game. So much of the Blue Devils' performance was a smoke-and-mirrors diversion, something Krzyzewski noted was probably a less-than-ideal approach that just so happened to be the best option they had without Jones on the court. But the point was, when Duke needed something more -- minutes without depth, scoring without a distributor, defense without their best on-ball defender -- Barrett and Williamson delivered.

To suggest the Duke duo is as talented as any in the country is hardly breaking new ground. The Zion Show is arguably the biggest thing to hit college basketball in years, and Barrett's fluid game and smooth shot offer a constant reminder of what he can one day become in the NBA.

There will be time for all that praise, but Saturday, those immense futures gave way to the immediacy of the moment, when Barrett and Williamson simply wanted to beat the best team Duke has played this season, and to do it in the name of their injured teammate. None of that was about the highlights. It was about finding a way -- any way -- to get the job done. Turns out, that's a good way to build something bigger than a couple superstars.

"I feel like I can be a great perimeter player, but I don't get to showcase it," Williamson said. "And Coach K, he'll come in the locker room and look me in the eye and say, 'I believe in your ability.' When the greatest coach of all time tells you that, it gives you confidence."

So good. The guy who's owned highlight shows for three months is feeling more confident. That fits nicely alongside the smooth shooter who proved himself in the paint, and the undermanned team that found it still has plenty in the tank, even without one of its best.

This doesn't guarantee a thing for Duke in the long run, just as a Virginia victory wouldn't have erased the demons of UMBC. Those stories will be told in March. But Krzyzewski has said all season that there is room for growth, that these are still just freshmen, that there are depths yet to be explored. And Saturday sure felt like the Hall of Fame coach mined something special from two guys who were already pretty great.