Luke DeCock

Duke and UCF a generation in the making, and worth the wait

It may have been the single longest handshake line in the history of basketball: an attempt to reckon, in the immediacy of the moment, how decades of shared history could collide with the caprice of March and produce a finish that will outlive all of its participants.

Mike Krzyzewski must have hugged Johnny Dawkins for close to a full minute, or at least it felt that way as it lingered, in that moment no longer a coach savoring victory over a rival but once again a coach consoling his own player after a bitter defeat. This game was a generation in the making, and it was worth the wait.

A generational player faced the rare opponent as unique as he is, and lost nearly every engagement except the last. A pupil gave his mentor everything he could handle. The kid who grew up in Duke’s gym nearly derailed Duke’s would-be championship run before it got started. And it all came down to a fickle bounce off the rim, so similar to the one that ended Duke’s season a year ago, the ball again bouncing out, but for the other team.

It would have been more entertaining if it wasn’t so stressful. Central Florida came within inches of the upset – might well have delivered if a too-soon celebratory alley-oop hadn’t gone awry – but had to bow in the end, like so many others, to the incendiary raw talent of Zion Williamson and RJ Barrett, who combined to score the final four points in a 3-second span of the 76-77 win.

“The will to win of Zion and RJ, you can’t measure it,” Krzyzewski said. “It’s just there.”

Duke staggers on to Washington, where a rematch with Virginia Tech awaits, but not without being pushed to the extent of its abilities by 7-foot-6 Tacko Fall and the coach’s son Aubrey Dawkins, the former blocking Williamson three times before fouling out on Williamson’s final drive, the latter scoring 32 points against the school where his father played and worked under Krzyzewski, outscoring anything Johnny ever did in the tournament at Duke.

The final minute was exquisitely tense, every dribble freighted not only with this result but the realization within every living soul in the building that basketball history was on the verge of being made. Central Florida led by three with 45 seconds to go, and Duke looked totally lost on offense. Williamson took and missed a 3, but the offensive rebound ended up back with him on the perimeter as time continued to wind. This time, he put his shoulder down, might have gotten away with a shove and went right at Fall under the rim, making the basket and drawing the foul.

That still left Duke down one, and Williamson missed the free throw. Barrett swept in to tip it back in and give Duke the lead. There were 14 seconds and an eternity still to go. B.J. Taylor got the last shot instead of Aubrey Dawkins, but Dawkins came out of nowhere to tip the ball in. And back out.

On the one side: “When he tipped it, you talk about microseconds, that ball rolled around the rim,” Williamson said. “It looked like it was going in. But you ask coach, he talks about basketball gods, they had our back tonight.”

And on the other: “It was up there forever, I felt like, in slow motion,” Aubrey Dawkins said. “Once I saw it go past the midpoint and roll out, there was, at that point, nothing left to do.”

The last second shot by UCF’s Aubrey Dawkins (15) does not fall during Duke’s 77-76 victory over UCF in the second round of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Championship in Columbia, S.C., Sunday, March 24, 2019. Ethan Hyman

Fall’s mere presence seemed to exert a gravitational pull on Dawkins’ shots, drawing them through the hoop. But he wasn’t there at the end, to box out Barrett or tip in Taylor’s miss or guide Dawkins’ tip into the basket.

Duke’s best offensive play was to get Fall in foul trouble. Central Florida was up one with Fall in the game in the first half, down nine with him on the bench. Back in the game to start the second, he led the Knights on a 7-0 run before he picked up his third. Dawkins left him in the game at that point; UCF had no shot without him.

The Blue Devils tried just about everything to slow the Knights. They used pressure late in the first half to build a lead, and went to a zone in the second half after frittering that lead away. They never could shake the Knights, not until the very last shot.

“I feel bad that they lost,” Krzyzewski said. “I’m happy, but it’s like a yin and a yang here because they were so deserving of winning. They were so good.”

That argument will be made by others, and the arguments over this game – over the late review of a Central Florida shot that may or may not have touched the rim as the shot clock expired and so many other things – will go on as long as basketball is a subject to be argued. The world has been watching Williamson, and it will go on watching him now.

Sports columnist Luke DeCock has covered the Summer Olympics, the Final Four, the Super Bowl and the Carolina Hurricanes’ Stanley Cup. He joined The News & Observer in 2000 to cover the Hurricanes and the NHL before becoming a columnist in 2008. A native of Evanston, Ill., he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania and has won multiple national and state awards for his columns and feature writing while twice being named North Carolina Sportswriter of the Year.