As the ball left Aubrey Dawkins’ fingers and danced tantalizingly on the rim, fear and desperation gripped Duke’s Javin DeLaurier.
“The ball was sitting there on the rim,” DeLaurier said. “I was thinking, `Please not like this.’”
Dawkins had already scored 32 points when he tipped the ball on to the rim in the final seconds of Sunday’s NCAA tournament game.
His play put No. 9 seed Central Florida in position to upset Duke, the tournament’s No. 1 seed and his father’s alma mater.
A Duke captain and the lone Blue Devils starter who isn’t a freshmen, DeLaurier saw first-year phenoms Zion Williamson and RJ Barrett score his team’s final baskets with 14 and 11 seconds left.
That put the Blue Devils in front by a point but when Dawkins’ tip of BJ Taylor’s missed shot left the ball on the rim with two seconds left, all Duke’s hopes and dreams hung in the balance.
“That would have been the most painful way for this season to end with this team,” DeLaurier said. “On a buzzer-beater. With a tip.”
Then the ball rolled off the rim and out. The buzzer sounded. Duke escaped with a 77-76 win and the right to play again Friday in Washington, D.C., as one of the tournament’s final 16 teams.
Relief. Exultation. Celebration.
But don’t forget validation.
Even when Central Florida led 74-70 with 2:09 to play and 76-73 with 45 seconds left, the Blue Devils (31-5) never lost hope. They believed they would make the tough plays needed to win and then went out and did it.
“To be in that situation, it’s like we know it’s win or go home,” Barrett said. “So we’re trying to give everything out there because, if we lose, that’s it for us for the season. So just a surreal feeling, and it’s great to win.”
With Central Florida up 74-70, Duke’s Tre Jones missed a 3-pointer and the Knights had possession with a two-possession lead and just under two minutes to play.
Duke lived in the danger zone.
But DeLaurier stole a pass with 1:49 to play to keep the Blue Devils alive.
Freshman Cam Reddish drilled a 3-pointer with 1:43 left and Duke trailed by a point.
DeLaurier had a chance to put Duke ahead at the line with 1:09 left but missed two free throws.
Reddish fouled Taylor with 45 seconds left. His two free throws put the Knights ahead 76-73.
Duke needed pure toughness or its season would end.
Williamson missed a 3-pointer with 30 seconds left, but DeLaurier secured the rebound to keep the possession alive.
Williamson drove the lane where Central Florida 7-6 center Tacko Fall was waiting. But Williamson scored while drawing Fall’s fifth foul with 14 seconds left.
When Williamson missed the free throw short, Barrett sliced his way into the lane to grab the rebounds and score and put Duke up 77-76.
“I was just thinking what can we do to win this game?” Barrett said. “I remember watching March Madness 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.”
Duke still needed a defensive stop. Jones stayed with Taylor, forcing an off-balance shot from the right side with four seconds left. Dawkins soared into the lane to tip the miss but the ball never found the bottom of the net.
A tough game between tough-minded teams ended with tough luck for the underdog.
UCF coach Johnny Dawkins, a Duke all-American guard in the 1980s, knows as much as anyone about the toughness Krzyzewski instills in his team. His Central Florida team showed just as much toughness, rallying from an eight-point halftime deficit before erasing the 66-59 lead Duke had with 7:28 to play.
“We’ve been in that situation a lot of times where we get up seven or eight points and we hit them with a haymaker of a run and teams kind of fold,” DeLaurier said. “This team didn’t do that. They came back and took the lead. We were fortunate to get out there with a win.”
Duke proved up to the challenge. Though the Blue Devils start four freshmen, one-possession wins over Florida State, Virginia, Louisville, Wake Forest and North Carolina since January have accelerated their maturity.
“I was very impressed with the way that Duke, especially with freshmen, were able to withstand some of the shots we were making,” Johnny Dawkins said, “and it says a lot about their will, it says a lot about their overall mental toughness.”
That toughness will be needed from here on out. Tough-minded Virginia Tech, which beat the Blue Devils 77-72 in Blacksburg, Va., in ACC play last month, is up next for Duke on Friday. No. 2 seed Michigan State, the Big 10 champion, also remains alive in the East Region bracket.
That’s before even getting to the Final Four.
Duke needs four more wins for an NCAA title. Tough plays in the final two minutes Sunday kept them alive to face the challenge.