The No. 2 Duke Blue Devils won their ninth game in a row Saturday, as they defeated the NC State Wolfpack 94-78 at Cameron Indoor Stadium in Durham, North Carolina.
Ahead of Wednesday's highly anticipated encounter against the No. 8 North Carolina Tar Heels, Duke improved to 23-2 on the season with an 11-1 mark in ACC play. Meanwhile, NC State fell to 18-8 with a 6-7 record in conference.
Freshman sensation Zion Williamson led the way for Duke with 32 points, six rebounds and three steals. Fellow freshman RJ Barrett also had a strong game with 23 points, 11 rebounds and 10 assists, giving him the fourth triple-double in school history.
The Blue Devils didn't overwhelm NC State from the field, as they shot 53 percent, but they did plenty of damage from the free-throw line, making 21 of 28 attempts. Williamson was especially adept at getting to the charity stripe Saturday, and he finished with eight makes on his 13 tries.
NC State shot 50 percent in a losing effort, and the Wolfpack were led by senior guard Torin Dorn, who registered 17 points and four rebounds on the night.
Duke led by as much as 14 in the first half, but NC State did manage to whittle the deficit down to eight by halftime.
The Blue Devils came out firing in the second half by scoring the first six points of the half, however, and they managed to pull away en route to victory.
Williamson Pulling Away in National Player of the Year Race
While there are several compelling candidates to be named the Naismith National Player of the Year, Williamson showed once again Saturday why he is the overwhelming favorite heading toward the stretch run of the 2018-19 season.
Williamson had 19 points at halftime alone, and much of his production came courtesy of drives to the basket that likely terrified NC State defenders, such as this one:
Zion deferred to Barrett at times and got himself into foul trouble in the second half, but there is no denying the overwhelming impact he had on the game.
Williamson worked over NC State in the first half and early in the second, and he drew several fouls that resulted in the Wolfpack having to play less aggressively on the defensive end.
Bleacher Report's Jonathan Wasserman attempted to quantify just how physically dominant Williamson is in the following tweet:
NC State could not match up with Williamson, and the Wolfpack's only reprieve came when Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski had to rest him for a stretch in the second half because of foul trouble. Even with Williamson sitting for a spell, he still managed to finish close to his yearly per-game averages.
Perhaps no player in college basketball does more damage with less volume than Williamson, and that was apparent against NC State.
As pointed out by Wasserman, Williamson continues to put up huge numbers despite almost always getting surpassed by Barrett in attempts from the field:
Barrett's volume may help secure him some support for National Player of the Year honors—and with good reason—but he typically doesn't impact games as profoundly as Williamson does.
If not for Zion wearing down the NC State front line in the early going and racking up uncontested points at the free-throw line, NC State may have had a fighting chance. The Wolfpack never truly threatened the Blue Devils, though, and much of that can be attributed to Williamson's overall dominance.
NC State No Longer an NCAA Tournament Lock Amid Recent Struggles
It wasn't long ago that NC State looked like a fairly sure bet to make the NCAA tournament, but that is no longer the case after yet another loss.
The Wolfpack managed to hang tough against Duke for long stretches despite being overmatched from an overall talent perspective; however, it was nowhere near enough to get the signature win they desperately needed.
NC State has now lost five of its past eight games, and it is 5-7 over its last 12. During that stretch, the only win that might turn heads to any degree is a 73-58 home victory over Syracuse, which handed Duke its only ACC loss to date.
The Wolfpack lost to unranked Wake Forest, and despite having numerous occasions to knock off ranked teams such as North Carolina, Louisville, Virginia and Virginia Tech, they have continually fallen short.
NC State's only win over a team that was ranked at the time it faced them was a 78-71 win over then-No. 7 Auburn in December, but the Tigers are no longer ranked. The Wolfpack have been only average since then, and in a recent loss to Virginia Tech, they scored just 24 points.
The Wolfpack looked better against a loaded Duke team at times, but as noted by Joe Giglio of the News & Observer, head coach Kevin Keatts didn't do nearly enough to combat the Blue Devils' athleticism advantage:
NC State plays in arguably the best conference in all of college basketball, and it can be argued that the Wolfpack would have a better record in almost any other conference.
Even so, NC State didn't play an overly high level of competition in non-conference play, and it has squandered multiple opportunities to score big wins against ACC opponents as well. Because of that, it is far from a lock to reach the NCAA tournament.
The Wolfpack do have a favorable scheduled down the stretch with four of their final five games coming against unranked opponents and the other coming against No. 17 Florida State.
A win over FSU or over a ranked opponent in the ACC tournament may be enough to earn the Wolfpack an NCAA tournament berth, but based on how they have performed lately, there is no indication that they'll be able to pull that off.
Duke will look to continue its impressive streak Wednesday in one of its biggest games of the season against rival UNC.
NC State will also be back in action Wednesday when it hosts Boston College and attempts to strengthen its case for an NCAA tournament at-large bid.