COLUMBIA, S.C. — Zion Williamson and RJ Barrett walked off the court with arms wrapped around one another. Williamson leaned in, speaking firmly into Barrett’s ear to be heard above the clamor in the stands. Barrett shook his head back and forth, disbelieving.
The scoreboard read Duke 77, UCF 76, and for all the hype surrounding this Blue Devils team over the past six months, those numbers still felt incongruent with the reality of the prior 40 minutes. Duke had taken every punch, and here the Blue Devils were, still standing.
“We’re not going home, man,” Williamson told his teammate. “It’s me and you out here, two brothers. Let’s keep it going.”
Duke fought its way off the ropes in a win over UCF in the round of 32. Here’s what the narrow result means.
Zion Williamson and RJ Barrett saved top-ranked Duke from a second-round upset at the hands of UCF on Sunday, with coach Mike Krzyzewski praising the freshman tandem for “willing us to win.”
The game will be remembered for Tacko Fall’s presence in the paint, for Williamson’s 3-pointers, for UCF daring Tre Jones to shoot and Duke begging Aubrey Dawkins to miss. But what will live on, what could take up the entirety of this year’s “One Shining Moment” montage, what Duke and UCF fans will be talking about decades from now, is the final two minutes of drama, from an official’s review to a physics-defying roll around the rim on the final shot.
Here’s how it all went down.
“I’m not worried.”
B.J. Taylor’s jumper grazed the rim, but it took the officials a while to figure it out. Fall followed Taylor’s miss with a dunk, but officials stopped the game to ensure there hadn’t been a shot clock violation.
During the stoppage, Mike Krzyzewski gathered his team — four freshmen in their first tournament and a menagerie of battered cogs for the machine — and offered a confidence booster.
“I’m not worried,” he said. “You guys live for these moments.”
“When the greatest coach of all time tells you that,” Williamson said, “that’s all the confidence you need.”
Fall’s dunk counted, and UCF had a 4-point lead with 2 minutes to play. Confident or not, Duke was on the ropes.
An alley-oop try might’ve been the knock-out blow.
“If Dawkins had caught that lob, they go up six, and who knows how that changes things,” Williamson said. “It just takes one play to change things.”
Fall was a force on Sunday, hovering in the paint. With Fall on the court, Williamson had been stifled near the basket, converting on just 6 of 17 shots in the paint, with three swatted away by Fall. So instead, Duke looked to the outside, where it had struggled mightily all season. This time, however, Cam Reddish delivered with a 3.
“We’ve been working hard, going at each other, and we all had to step up and make some tough shots,” Reddish said.
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Duke had a chance to take the lead on the next possession, but Javin DeLaurier missed two free throws, and UCF pushed its margin to 3 by draining a pair from the stripe on the other end.
The score was 76-73, 33 seconds to play, Duke ball. There was no doubt who would get the shot.
Of course, the way the game had gone, Williamson wasn’t thinking of driving. His plan was to find some space on the perimeter and hoist his eighth 3-point attempt of the game. A 3 would’ve tied it. Fall was still patrolling the paint. It was the smart play.
Attack the hoop
Then Williamson heard Jones from the top of the key.
“Go,” Jones yelled. “Get to the basket.”
It wasn’t that Jones saw some ideal matchup. Fall was there in the paint, menacing. But that’s what Jones wanted. He knew Williamson, had seen the heroics all season, knew his big man wouldn’t miss. Jones wanted to witness the ultimate mano-a-mano play, and Williamson delivered.
“There’s nobody that can step in front of him and stop him, so when the game’s on the line like that, and the ball’s in his hands, I don’t want him settling for anything,” Jones said. “I want him to attack the hoop. He did it.”
Williamson drove straight at Fall, leaped, hung in the air, collided with the UCF giant and lofted the ball into the hoop. The basket counted, Fall was whistled for his fifth foul and Williamson went to the foul line to tie it.
Zion Williamson and RJ Barrett break down what Coach Mike Krzyzewski said to them with 2:09 left to go in the game vs. UCF.
“Zion made an incredible play against Tacko when he’d been missing all game,” Barrett said. “That will to win is something special.”
Williamson missed the free throw, but with Fall on the bench, Barrett found room to corral the rebound. Duke’s leading scorer, Barrett hadn’t hit a field goal in more than 17 minutes when he came down with the rebound and immediately turned to shoot.
“I saw the ball, it came right to me, I grabbed it and put it in,” Barrett said. “That’s the only thing I was thinking about.”
It went in, and Duke took its first lead in 5 minutes of action.
Afterward, a reporter asked Barrett if it was the best play of his career.
“It’s sure my favorite one,” he said.
Barrett’s basket felt like a dagger, but UCF still had a chance to win it.
Taylor took the inbounds pass and tried to drive, but Jones — one of college basketball’s best on-ball defenders — forced him to the baseline, where he tossed up a floater that bounced off the inside of the rim, then off the backboard.
“I’ve been shooting that shot since I’ve been playing for Coach [Johnny Dawkins],” Taylor said. “It just didn’t fall. It kills me that it didn’t fall. But that was the play. We got the shot we wanted.”
Aubrey Dawkins charged from the top of the key, however, and tipped the ball back. It rolled around the rim for what might’ve been an eternity.
“It was up there forever,” Dawkins said. “It felt like slow motion.”
And then it rimmed out, and Williamson swatted away the rebound to end the game.
“Heartbreak,” Dawkins said. “That’s the only way to sum it up.”
Heartbreak for UCF. Jubilation for Duke.
“When he tipped it,” Williamson said, “you talk about microseconds, when that ball rolled around the rim, it looked like it was going in, but as Coach K talks a lot about the basketball gods, they had our back tonight.”
Duke moves on now. Virginia Tech awaits in the Sweet 16. But everyone in the Blue Devils’ locker room knows how close they came.
“I could be sitting right here saying it was a great run, and it’s sad,” Williamson said. “But this was special. I hope we can go even further.”