HOUSTON—What a difference one shot can make.
Duke's 66-52 victory against second-seeded Gonzaga in the South Regional final looked as though it was headed for a thrilling finish. With 4:48 to play, the Blue Devils clung to a 53-51 lead and the Bulldogs had the ball looking to extend a 5-0 run and tie the game.
Redshirt junior forward Kyle Wiltjer—former SEC Sixth Man of the Year at Kentucky—had been a thorn in Duke's side all night. After scoring 13 first-half points and seeming to disregard what defensive looks the Blue Devils threw at him, Wiltjer was held in check during the second half, scoring just three points. But when Wiltjer took a feed under the rim for a wide open layup to tie the game, there wasn't a single person at NRG Stadium doubting the Gonzaga star would convert.
Except Wiltjer's shot was too strong, and the ball clanged off the rim and out.
"It was a shot he makes. He would make that thing 499 times out of 500. Just a fluke," Gonzaga head coach Mark Few said. "There's literally nobody we would rather have taking that shot at that moment at that time."
As the Duke faithful breathed a giant sight of relief, center Jahlil Okafor grabbed the defensive rebound and pushed the ball ahead. Seconds later, forward Justise Winslow was fouled by Gonzaga's Przemek Karnowski and calmly headed to the line to sink two free-throws.
After Wiltjer's miss, Gonzaga scored just one point for the remainder of the game. The Blue Devils closed the game on a 13-1 run to earn their first trip to the Final Four since 2010, and the Bulldogs left the court wondering what could have been.
"When that happens, just kind of got to shake your head and it's not your night," Few said.