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An Ode to Tacko Fall, the Giant Who Nearly Felled a Giant

The 7-foot-6 UCF center nearly ruined Duke on Sunday with a dominating performance, and his legend only grew even as his team’s upset bid came up short

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

We finally found something Zion Williamson couldn’t jump over. For 39 minutes and 49 seconds, 7-foot-6 Tacko Fall and UCF proved too tall an obstacle for the best team in college basketball. If only Fall had been allowed to play all 40.

I couldn’t wait for the matchup between college basketball’s best player and its tallest. Last month, I wrote about how I considered Fall and Williamson the two most physically dominant players in college hoops. Fall affects games in all the ways you’d expect—he blocks shots, he grabs boards, he dunks. Williamson affects games in all the ways you’d never expect—how can someone that big, that thicc, jump so high, run so fast, and pass so well? Both were fascinating to watch and so unlike any other player that I couldn’t quite fathom what would happen if the two found themselves on the same floor. Would Williamson’s unprecedented athleticism allow him to leap past Fall? Or would Fall’s unmatched height neutralize Williamson? Fall said before the game that he’d keep Williamson from dunking; Williamson displayed poise nearly as impressive as his athleticism by wondering what Fall was supposed to say.

Both Fall and Williamson played exceptionally, with Fall’s presence nearly ruining Duke. The senior center shot 7-for-10 from the field, with seven dunks.

He also rebounded two of the three shots he missed, and scored once and was fouled another time, so there was really only one possession where he attempted a shot and didn’t get any reward for it. Fall finishes his career shooting 74 percent from the floor, absolutely shattering an NCAA record that has stood for almost 40 years.

But the main way Fall changed the game was on defense. Normally, Duke is a team that scores well inside (on the year, they shot 57.9 percent inside the arc, fourth-best in Division I) and struggles massively from outside. (They shot 30.7 percent from 3, 329th-best in Division I. There are 353 teams.) Fall blocked only three shots, but he altered shots and forced Duke to operate much farther from the rim than they’re typically comfortable with. They shot just 20-for-42 from 2—just the fourth time this year the Blue Devils shot worse than 50 percent from inside the arc with Williamson in the lineup. UCF essentially left Duke guard Tre Jones unguarded, and he responded by shooting a dismal 1-for-8 from 3.

Meanwhile, UCF’s Aubrey Dawkins—the son of coach Johnny Dawkins, a former Duke player and assistant—had the game of his life, hitting five 3s and finishing with 32 points, allowing UCF to hold a lead in the game’s final minutes. And sometimes, Tacko even blocked Zion.

But Tacko couldn’t neutralize the superstar. Zion finished with 32 points, including three 3-pointers. And when UCF led by three with under 30 seconds to go, the ball went to Zion—and Zion couldn’t be denied.

The foul was the fifth on Tacko, and it was just the second time this season Fall fouled out. Williamson missed the free throw—but without Fall in the game, Duke got the offensive board and scored to take a one-point lead.

And at the other end of the floor, UCF’s two attempts to win the game hung tantalizingly on the rim and fell off.

There’s no doubt in my mind that if Tacko had gotten to play the final 11 seconds of this game, things would have gone differently. He shoots his extendo-arms out and grabs the missed free throw, preventing Duke from hitting the game-winning putback. He plucks his teammates’ misses off the rim and effortlessly dunks for the win.

I’m glad this game was as brilliant and strange as it was. I fell in love with Fall this year. I was drawn to him because of his sheer size, but realized as UCF battled to the tournament that he was more than just a basketball oddity—he was a legitimate force whose undeniable physical attributes made him a game-changer. That’s rare, even for extremely tall players. He has his limitations, but fought as hard as he could over the course of four years to conquer them.

On Sunday, he played one of his best games on the biggest stage of his career. He was a 7-foot-6 wrench that nearly ruined the tournament favorites. Tacko came up just short—an uncommon result for him—but in the end, Duke never climbed Mount Tacko. They won the game after he’d been disqualified. We can still tell the tall tale of the night a giant nearly topped college basketball’s best.