The second-most Duke thing that could have happened in this year’s NCAA tournament would have been finally having a likable team for the first time in the 21st century and then losing in the second round. But the most Duke thing possible—snatching victory from the jaws of defeat against a lovable underdog with a physics-defying miss—happened Sunday. There are so many takeaways from Duke’s 77-76 victory, the tournament’s best game so far, that it’s hard to keep track of them all: Zion is amazing, Tacko Fall Is Extremely Tall, Coach K is more like Coach Just OK. But the lasting feeling for everyone outside Durham, North Carolina, is: How did Duke win that game?
No. 9-seed UCF was well constructed to beat the top-seeded Blue Devils, who are among the worst 3-point-shooting teams in the country and typically win by scoring at the rim. Tacko Fall, the 7-foot-6 UCF center who can dunk with his feet on the ground, is hard to score on. Tacko battled Duke superstar Zion Williamson in a matchup that was less basketball game and more Pacific Rim sequel (call it Above the Atlantic Rim). Fall had 15 points along with six rebounds, three blocks, and seven dunks (the most of any player against Duke this year) before fouling out with just under 15 seconds to go. Tacko started strong, snagging a rebound and scoring on the first play of the game, and then blocking Zion and yamming on the other end of the floor in the opening minutes.
Still, Tacko could not stop Zion, who finished with 32 points, 11 rebounds, and four assists, and took control of the game when Duke needed him. With just under four minutes left in the half, Duke’s R.J. Barrett tossed Zion an off-target alley-oop, and Zion got Calvin Johnson–level high to reel the ball in before landing like Chicxulub and taking flight again to tie the game at 34.
Zion almost jumped out of the building to haul in this pass. pic.twitter.com/0UYGVUi90x— CBS Sports (@CBSSports) March 24, 2019
A few minutes later, Zion slung a Steve Nash–esque bounce pass from midcourt to Tre Jones for an easy score to give Duke a 44-36 lead at halftime.
"NBA, where you gonna play him?"— CBS Sports (@CBSSports) March 24, 2019
Zion can do it all. pic.twitter.com/VYsjX4xPqs
It looked like the Blue Devils had finally woken up from their first half slumber and were going to run away with the game in the second half, but they were outcoached the rest of the way. UCF coach Johnny Dawkins—who played under Coach K in the 80s and became his assistant a decade later—went toe-to-toe with his mentor. The Knights successfully disrupted Duke’s spacing in part because Dawkins decided to dare Jones—the Ringo Starr of the 2018 Duke recruiting class—to do something, and Jones finished with 11 points and 1-of-8 shooting from 3-point range. It was also a great day for Dawkins’s son, Aubrey, who tied Zion for a game-high 32 points. The Dawkins duo’s moves (along with a questionable non-call on what looked like a UCF shot-clock violation with just more than two minutes to go) gave UCF a 76-73 lead with 45 seconds left.
With the chance to tie the game and make himself a legend, Zion took a 3-pointer and … missed. But Javin DeLaurier snagged the rebound and Duke got the ball back to Zion at the 3-point line with 19 seconds to go. This time, Zion decided to drive on Fall, and he got the bucket and the foul. Tacko fouled out of the game on the play, giving Zion the chance to tie the score at the free throw line and the clear victory in the climactic Atlantic Rim fight scene.
With a chance to cap what could have been a legendary play with the free throw, Zion … missed. But with Fall out, R.J. Barrett snagged his eighth and most important rebound and scored to give Duke a 77-76 lead with 11 seconds to go (because of course Duke would benefit from missing free throws). After a timeout, UCF’s B.J. Taylor drove for a tough shot and … missed. But Aubrey Dawkins leapt for the put-back and tipped it onto the rim for what seemed like an eternity before ...
… he missed. Game over. Gravity tilted toward Duke and the top three recruits of the 2018 high school class.
“It’s March Madness,” Zion said of his pivotal shot that earned Fall his fifth foul. “A lot is going through my mind.”
Ours too, Zion. Ours too.