SportsPulse: While there are no real Cinderellas left in the tournament USA TODAY’s Trysta Krick explains why that’s okay and looks ahead to the Sweet 16.
COLUMBIA, S.C. — There was always a danger of this for Duke, even as the No. 1 team in college basketball won all but one game this season when fully healthy.
Imperfectly constructed, crazy reliant on youth, often prone to tossing bricks at the rim, the margin between history and infamy was destined to be so, so thin.
And on Sunday night, at the very last moment of a second-round howitzer of an NCAA tournament game, that margin was literally one roll of a ball off the rim.
Duke escaped the second round, 77-76, barely holding on to beat No. 9 seed Central Florida when B.J. Taylor’s runner caromed too strong off the glass and a follow-tip by Aubrey Dawkins caught three different parts of the rim before gravity pulled it off to the side.
“It kills me that it didn’t fall,” Taylor said.
“I thought it was going to go,” said UCF coach Johnny Dawkins, Aubrey’s father and one of Mike Krzyzewski’s first great players at Duke in the mid-1980s.
“Coach K talks a lot about the basketball gods,” said Zion Williamson, the spectacular Duke freshman. “They had our back tonight.”
As Krzyzewski acknowledged, Duke got a little bit lucky. But a team constructed around three lottery picks shouldn’t need to feel like it won the lottery just to beat the third-place team from the American Athletic Conference, even in a crazy format like the NCAA tournament that is built for monumental opening-weekend upsets.
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Sure, UCF was brilliant, putting forth one of the best losing efforts in recent memory. First there was Aubrey Dawkins, who scored 32 points on 12-of-18 shots and unleashed a barrage of second-half jumpers that nearly made him a tournament legend. And then there was Tacko Fall, the 7-foot-6 giant who wasn’t so gentle when he had to defend Williamson on Sunday,. Combined with the elder Dawkins’ second-half adjustment to drop his defense completely off Duke’s poor outside shooters and use Fall as an anchor in the paint to mess with Duke’s sightlines, a team that came into the tournament as an afterthought looked like it was ready to bust everyone’s bracket.
“You miss and make shots, and you’ve got to live with it,” Aubrey Dawkins said. “We got the opportunity, and it just didn’t go.”
But the thing is, it’s now clear how easy Duke’s offense is to discombobulate because for all the great recruiting of McDonald’s All-Americans that Krzyzewski has done recently, this year he forgot to get a couple more who can shoot.
Tre Jones, the Blue Devils’ defensive bulldog of a point guard, has been ultra-valuable this season in so many ways. But in a game like this, where it was clear UCF wanted to test whether a 24 percent three-point shooter was going to make them completely unguarded, he was too quick to oblige by going 1-for-8 from the arc. At one point in the second half, when it looked like Duke was a few good possessions from pulling away, he hoisted jumpers on three straight trips, completely changing the energy of the situation in UCF’s favor. In the second half, Duke shot just 35% and needed every last one of them to escape into the East Regional semifinal.
“We had a lot of stuff go on today that was difficult for us — and the most difficult was the other team, and we were able to find a way to win,” Krzyzewski said. “But these kids, they have it. They have it.”
Give Duke this much: Led by Williamson, this is a ferociously competitive bunch with a deep reserve of guts and a nose for the ball when it matters. Down four with less than two minutes left and searching for answers on offense, a three-pointer by wing Cam Reddish pulled Duke back within range.
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Then, down 76-73 with less than a minute left, we got the confrontation America had been waiting for: Williamson challenging Fall at the rim, everything on the line for Duke. As Williamson had figured out by then, after Fall had blocked his shot three times earlier and fouled him a couple more, there’s no easy way to score on 7-foot-6. So this time Williamson skied high in the air, the way he typically does for his highlight-reel dunks, only this time contorting his body a bit sideways to create space, bank in the layup and draw Fall’s fifth foul on the collision.
“A lot’s going through my mind,” said Williamson, whose final bucket gave him 32 points. “But like coach said, I consider him the greatest coach of all time, and when he looks at you and tells you you’re made for this moment, it’s like the most confidence you can be given. So when I went to the basket, I knew it was going in.”
It’s the kind of play only a few people in the world would have been strong enough, nimble enough and athletic enough to make. And because that’s exactly who Williamson is, Duke promises to be difficult to extinguish from this tournament.
“I just tried to get the ball into the hands of my two best players,” Krzyzewski said, referring to Williamson and R.J. Barrett, who both, in the winning moments, found a way to transcend what was happening to Duke as it started at tournament mortality.
Though Williamson missed the free throw that would have tied the game, Barrett was able to sneak in for a putback that finally gave Duke the lead with 11 seconds left — another one of those plays where you can throw all the strategy out the window and it’s simply Best Man Wins.
“I remember watching March Madness and watching a whole bunch of games and seeing missed free throws, somebody gets a rebound and a putback,” Barrett said. “So I thought, I’m just going to try to do whatever I can to get this rebound.”
We probably shouldn’t have been surprised Duke pulled out that game in that manner. Though not as dramatic as this one, Duke has been the classic “find a way to win” team all season, coming up with exactly what it needs, exactly when it needs it.
“Hopefully we can continue to advance, but I love who they are, and I have confidence in them,” Krzyzewski said. “If they didn’t come through, I’ve got their backs. But they did come through.”
Having that kind of will is extremely valuable in an NCAA tournament. So is the ability to make outside shots to put away games, which the Blue Devils just don’t seem to possess. That never-ending balance between brilliance and frailty hasn’t mattered yet for Duke. But which way it tips is really going to matter now.