COLUMBIA, S.C. — Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski huddled his Blue Devils together with 2:08 left in their second-round tilt against UCF as officials huddled to determine whether B.J. Taylor’s jumper as the shot clock expired had actually grazed the rim.
UCF was up 74–70 at the time, but Krzyzewski felt comfortable with the time on the clock, feeling there’d still be between eight and 10 possessions for both teams. So he looked at his team—the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA tournament—and told them, You guys live for these moments.
Duke would escape Columbia with a 77–76 victory over ninth-seeded UCF after Aubrey Dawkins’s tip-in somehow didn’t go down. The final 128 seconds of this game gave this tournament a much-needed jolt of energy, provided several moments that will shape the national title favorites moving forward and will go down as the story of the first weekend.
Out of that timeout, point guard Tre Jones, who was ice-cold all night on 5-of-15 shooting, missed a three-pointer, and UCF got out in transition quickly with Dayon Griffin pushing the ball up-court. Dawkins readied for takeoff as Griffin sent the alley, but Dawkins couldn’t corral the lob and missed the oop for what could have been a back-breaking six-point UCF lead.
Cam Reddish, Duke’s streaky freshman shooter, went back the other way and hit a three in rhythm that Zion Williamson was so sure was going in he didn’t bother to crash in for the rebound. In the next minute, the teams would trade free-throw attempts, with the Blue Devils missing theirs and the Knights making both. UCF led 76–73 with 45 seconds remaining.
Williamson would miss his seventh three-point attempt of the night, but Javin DeLaurier collected the miss and got the ball back into the hands of the best player on the floor. Knowing the point differential, Williamson wanted to stroke another three-pointer, but then he heard Jones yelling, Go to the basket! and he decided to take it into the body of 7'6" Tacko Fall.
Fall was, without question, the biggest difference-maker on the court Sunday. Duke could hardly get a paint touch to start the game facing UCF’s 2–3 zone, and its offensive energy changed immediately each time Fall went to the bench. Fall had four fouls as Williamson charged at him, so he knew he had to challenge the play but be smart about it. This was the moment the entire crowd at Colonial Life Arena had been waiting for in the two days since Fall promised Williamson wouldn’t dunk on him. He backed up that promise, but Williamson got the layup to go and the foul, knocking Fall out of the game.
“I wasn’t really thinking about [dunking on him],” Williamson said after the game. “I’m telling y’all, man, that’s one play. You’re out there, you’re not thinking about dunking on him. You’re thinking about, how can I make this shot?”
Williamson’s free throw with 14.4 seconds left banged off the front of the rim—he felt it was short coming off his hands—but R.J. Barrett, the beneficiary of a bad box-out (and perhaps the aggressor in a push-off?), collected the rebound and had the easiest putback of the day to out Duke up 77–76 with 11.8 seconds remaining. Williamson had to remind himself not to celebrate with Barrett and get back on defense, and UCF called a timeout three seconds later.
“I remember watching March Madness,” the 18-year-old Barrett said, “and watching a whole bunch of games and seeing missed free throws, somebody gets a rebound and a putback. So I thought, I'm just going to try to do whatever I can to get this rebound.”
UCF coach Johnny Dawkins drew up a play for B.J. Taylor in the timeout with 8.1 seconds left. It would call for Taylor to catch the inbounds pass and take the ball to the other side of the floor as UCF cleared out the right side. Taylor went one-on-one with Jones and put a shot off the glass, but it was too high up the backboard. Then came a pause, and Aubrey Dawkins flew in for what would have been his 34th point against the school he grew up with if the basketball gods saw fit. His right-handed tip off the glass rolled around the rim and out.
The win for Duke means the Blue Devils don’t exit in the first weekend of the tournament for the fourth time in eight years. It means CBS won’t have a ratings crisis on its hands heading into the second weekend of action without Williamson. It means we won’t yet have to discuss whether a team can truly win the NCAA tournament following the one-and-done model. It keeps almost everyone’s bracket intact and preserves the potential of a fateful national championship matchup against North Carolina.
More than 10 minutes after the game ended, just as Williamson and Barrett began their walk from the Duke locker room to the media podium, Barrett had a message for his teammate.
“Hey bro, don’t you ever skim like that again,” Barrett said. “Make your dang free throw.” Williamson turned and gave him a fist pound.