COLUMBIA, S.C.—Zion Williamson, staring up at the game clock as it ticked down to 17 seconds, beckoned for a screen.
But before it could come, the superstar freshman took two dribbles, barreling his way from the left wing to the charity stripe. Williamson then spun, sending his defender to the ground, before flying toward the rim and the outstretched arms of 7-foot-6 Tacko Fall.
The ball floated. The ACC Player of the Year hung in the air. And, of course, the rock found its way through the nylon.
Yet the job was not done.
R.J. Barrett’s putback layup off Williamson's missed free throw with 11.8 seconds remaining completed top-seeded Duke’s improbable comeback as the Blue Devils surged from down four in the final two minutes to avoid a stunning upset and knock out No. 9 seed Central Florida with a 77-76 win. Williamson did it all for Duke Sunday at Colonial Life Arena, scoring 32 points and pulling down 11 rebounds for yet another double-double, but the Knights’ Aubrey Dawkins nearly gave UCF enough offense to send shockwaves throughout the college basketball world with 32 points of his own.
Dawkins nearly had two more points, rimming out on a put-back tip in the final seconds that almost certainly would’ve given the Knights a win had it gone down.
“These kids, my guys, hung in there. They hung in there because just the momentum of the tournament, what's going on, you could be defeated right there, and instead, they hung in there,” head coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “The will to win of Zion and R.J., you can't measure it. It's just there…. We're a young group, but what they did right at the end of that game in willing us to win was just absolutely sensational.”
As Dawkins’ last-gasp attempt fell toward the hardwood, Barrett grabbed the ball. He ran toward midcourt, and once the buzzer sounded, the Canadian chucked the ball into the air.
“After the game, [R.J. and I] looked at each other and he looked at me and he said, ‘We’re not going home,’” Williamson said. “You don’t want to go home. I think it’s one thing to say you don’t want to go home, but when you’re actually in the moment, down four with two minutes on the clock, we could have easily panicked.”
With just more than 11 minutes to go, Dawkins leveled the game at 54, throwing down an alley-oop to ignite the UCF faithful. The very next trip down, Knight guard B.J. Taylor canned a triple to give his team its first lead in nearly 15 minutes.
And in a game that featured run after run, the Blue Devils responded. Duke (31-5) got a clutch triple from Williamson to knot things back up and start a 12-2 spurt as it extended the lead back to seven.
“We were fighting for our lives,” Cam Reddish said. “Coach has been there for us, pushing us, giving us the confidence we need to go out there and perform and execute on both sides of the floor. We came together and fought to the very end.”
UCF, fittingly, would answer with a 15-4 run, capped by a Fall dunk that was counted after a lengthy replay review. Although the Knights’ centerpiece played just 25 minutes, partly because of foul trouble, he made a massive impact while on the floor—UCF (24-9) packed the paint, allowing the Blue Devils to shoot from deep.
For most of the game, the Knights left Tre Jones and Jordan Goldwire, both of whom entered the night shooting worse than 25 percent from beyond the arc, wide open.
“It was very difficult,” Jones said of dealing with Fall’s presence. “We weren’t able to do a lot of things at the hoop. He was able to affect our shots a lot with how big he is and with his reach and everything…. [But] Coach talks to us all the time about poise. The big moments and things like that, none of us are afraid.”
Duke struggled mightily to contain Fall in the opening minutes as the UCF center took over. He logged four points and three rebounds before the game's first media timeout, giving the Knights an early advantage.
They sustained it by leaning on Dawkins. The redshirt junior couldn't miss, getting six of his eight shots before halftime to go down.
Dawkins, the son of UCF head coach and Blue Devil icon Johnny Dawkins, nearly did enough to help the Knights pull off what would have easily been the biggest win in UCF history, shooting 12-of-18 from the field and knocking down five 3-pointers.
Instead, the Knights will go home to Orlando with a bitter taste in their mouths.
“I love Johnny Dawkins, and the moments, the times that we've spent together building the program,” Krzyzewski said. “We're family. I feel bad that they lost. I'm happy—it's like a yin-and-yang here because they were deserving of winning. They were so good, and I'm so proud that those kids played at the level of their coach.”
Duke will now have just a couple of days to recover from its heart-pounding win before its heads to Washington for a rematch with fourth-seeded Virginia Tech in the Sweet 16. The Blue Devils came up short in their regular-season contest against the Hokies, falling 77-72 in Blacksburg, Va., last month.
But that happened without Williamson. And Duke certainly now realizes it can’t take anything for granted.
“Destiny is a big word,” Javin DeLaurier said. “But I definitely think there is somebody up there looking down and smiling on us tonight.”
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A junior from just outside Philadelphia, Mitchell is probably reminding you how the Eagles won the Super Bowl this year and that the Phillies are definitely on the rebound. Outside of The Chronicle, he majors in Economics, minors in Statistics and is working toward the PJMS certificate, in addition to playing trombone in the Duke University Marching Band. And if you're getting him a sandwich with beef and cheese outside the state of Pennsylvania, you best not call it a "Philly cheesesteak."