COLUMBIA, S.C.—It felt like a classic Duke upset.
Central Florida corralled a rebound off Tre Jones’ seventh missed triple of the night and was off in transition. Dayon Griffin lobbed it to Aubrey Dawkins for what looked like an exclamation-point alley-oop slam and a 76-70 edge with 1:49 left in the contest.
But Dawkins could not grasp the ball as it sailed out of bounds.
Had the Knights executed the slam or even laid it in, the storyline most likely would be one of a historic, shocking loss for the national title favorite in the first weekend of the tournament. Instead, Duke was able to fight back and escape, advancing to take on Virginia Tech in Washington Friday.
“It’s called March Madness for a reason. Every game, any game, any team can go home. It just takes one bad night, one bad shot line,” Zion Williamson said. “If Dawkins had caught that lob, that would have put them up six, and who knows…it only takes one play to change the outcome.”
The Blue Devils led 66-59 with 7:30 remaining, but the veteran UCF squad caught fire and put the nation’s top overall seed on the brink of elimination.
The Knights drained three straight triples, Dawkins—the son of UCF head coach, former Blue Devil player and assistant Johnny Dawkins—then hit a stepback jumper for his 31st and 32nd points of the night, and 7-foot-6 center Tacko Fall gave his team a 74-70 advantage with 2:08 remaining.
Fall’s putback dunk off an offensive rebound was reviewed extensively as it appeared B.J. Taylor's prior shot may not have hit the rim as the shot clock expired, giving head coach Mike Krzyzewski a chance to refocus his young team for the final stretch.
“We had a lot of time,” Krzyzewski said. “On the court, I said, ‘Look, no matter what the decision will be made, there's going to be eight to 10, maybe more possessions in this game. And you guys were made for these two minutes and just be yourselves.'”
Seconds after the botched alley-oop, the Blue Devils went to work. Cam Reddish, Zion Williamson and R.J. Barrett each proved they were made for the moment, draining a triple and a pair of layups as Duke regained the lead for good at 77-76.
The Blue Devils have had to come back before to mixed results. Duke trailed Gonzaga by 16 in the second half before falling by two in the closing minutes. The Blue Devils erased a 23-point deficit in a win at Louisville and hung on against Wake Forest on Senior Night as a last-second layup rolled off the rim.
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“It was different from other games, where if you lose or if you win you have other games after that,” Jones said. “None of us were thinking that our season could be coming to an end. We were just thinking about what type of plays we were going to have to make to bring out the win.”
Duke needed a little bit of luck in the closing seconds to secure the win.
A Dawkins tip-in attempt off a missed triple from Taylor appeared to be halfway down before somehow falling off the rim. Barrett grabbed the ball, took two dribbles and chucked it in the air as the Blue Devils rushed the floor celebrating the victory.
“It was almost like time stopped when that ball was on the rim,” Williamson said. “I’m thinking, ‘Man, don’t go in.’ It came out and the ball kind of tipped all over the place and then the clock ran out.”
It was almost over. Despite all the hype about Williamson’s highlight-reel dunks and the elite talent of the 2018-19 Blue Devils, Duke was just inches away from a shocking, disappointing upset and an abrupt end to the season.
Instead, the Blue Devils will live to see another day.
“I could be sitting right here telling y’all it was a great run,” Williamson said. “But it was very special and I hope we can go even further.
“We’re living the dream and you’ve got to live in the moment.“