WASHINGTON—It has to be divine intervention, at this point. The basketball gods are on speed dial for the Blue Devils.
There's no other way to explain the unexplainable—back-to-back point-blank shots that could have eliminated the Blue Devils or taken them to overtime, both bouncing harmlessly off the rim.
It's always taken a little bit of luck to win the NCAA tournament, a six-game, single-elimination gauntlet in which a hot or cold night can knock out the best team in the nation in any given season. Duke's young group has internalized that and taken it to its logical extreme, enjoying more fortuitous bounces than any team in recent memory to get within one win of the sport's biggest stage and three wins of a national championship.
Maybe it's payback for Grayson Allen's shot in last season's Elite Eight that could have sent the Blue Devils to the Final Four, rolling around the rim not once but twice before falling to the floor. Maybe it's just that the world needs to see Zion Williamson and his boundless enthusiasm a few more times in a college uniform.
For whatever reason, plucky little Duke, the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA tournament, feels like this year's team of destiny.
"I hope that's the case. But I don't really believe that. I believe that we just play hard and you stay resilient," head coach Mike Krzyzewski said. "The game is a great game, and it has amazing endings.... But our guys hung in there until the very end in both of them. And I don't think you're going to have an ending that's favorable if you don't hang in there until the end."
The Blue Devils' win against Central Florida last week in the second round felt like highway robbery, with every little thing in the last two minutes needing to go right for Duke to come out on top, culminating with Aubrey Dawkins' tip that just barely crawled off the iron.
This one was different. Against Virginia Tech, the Blue Devils were the team in control, taking a six-point lead with 1:21 left and just needing everything not to go wrong the rest of the way.
But that almost happened—and should have happened—until the Hokies couldn't finish the easiest play of the comeback.
Virginia Tech scored four straight points and took a charge on Zion Williamson, and Duke did its part to help the Hokies' cause when Tre Jones missed the front of a one-and-one. All of a sudden, the Blue Devils were desperate for one last defensive stop, clinging to a one-possession lead once more.
Two missed 3-pointers and two offensive boards later, after a blown no-call that should have given the ball back to Duke when Kerry Blackshear Jr. stepped out of bounds on a rebound, Virginia Tech ran a perfect baseline out of bounds play with 1.1 seconds left. Williamson chased Hill around a Blackshear screen and Justin Robinson lofted a perfect pass to the rim. Hill caught it cleanly and had nobody challenging him at the rim with Williamson caught flat-footed.
"I'm not even going to lie to you, when he caught it, I said, 'Ah, we're about to go to overtime,'" Williamson said. "I mean, I don't know what happened."
After Williamson left the podium, Krzyzewski took his turn at describing how the Blue Devils usually defend that type of play with a succinct initial answer.
But in the rush of having to catch the pass and finish in midair, Hill left it short, bouncing the ball off the front of the rim.
Those types of defensive lapses are supposed to be costly in March. Missed free throws, especially one-and-ones, are cardinal sins that often lead to close losses. But the Blue Devils have gotten away with misses in their last two games as well as their dramatic ACC tournament win against North Carolina.
They've received more than enough luck to last a whole tournament, and if they need it again, there's no guarantee the basketball gods they refer to so much will answer the call.
If Duke winds up cutting down the nets at Capital One Arena Sunday and in Minneapolis next week, it knows a higher power somewhere will be deserving of a healthy dose of gratitude.
"You’ve got to keep working for it, and you want to deserve it, but the basketball gods have watched out for us these past two games," Jones said. "Hopefully, we won’t have to bank on that anymore."
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