No. 9 seed Central Florida had top overall seed Duke up against the wall, poised to pull off one of the biggest upsets in March Madness history against a team with two national player of the year candidates and NBA top picks in Zion Williamson and R.J. Barrett.
Ultimately, it was Williamson’s bulldozing basket against 7-foot-6 center Tacko Fall and R.J. Barrett’s put-back — both plays made in the final 14 seconds — that saved Duke’s national title pursuit in the 77-76 thriller.
But it was another star who stole the NCAA tournament’s first weekend — even in defeat.
Aubrey Dawkins came out firing on all cylinders and was the backbone behind the Knights’ monumental upset attempt. The 6-6 junior guard, son of coach Johnny Dawkins, finished with 32 points on 12-for-18 shooting from the floor. Every time Duke punched with a surge of momentum, it was Dawkins spearheading a UCF rally as if to say, “not so fast.”
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While Dawkins’ missed dunk in the closing minutes and a last-second tip-in attempt that rimmed out at the buzzer will stick with college basketball fans wishing for a legendary upset, what Dawkins did before that is what made Sunday’s game an all-time classic. UCF had no shot without his heroics.
It was Dawkins’ scoring in the first half that made this a game from the onset. It was Dawkins’ 3-pointer less than two minutes into the second half that shifted the momentum for UCF. It was his dunk with 11:25 left that knotted the score at 54 and then his assist to B.J. Taylor on the next play to give the Knights their first lead of the second half. When Duke was looking to pull away with 6½ minutes left, Dawkins made another three to keep UCF within striking distance.
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Dawkins’ jumper with 3:10 left gave UCF a 72-70 lead and then his assist to Fall put the Knights up 74-70 with 2:09 remaining. If there was ever a moment when Duke, the national title favorite by a mile, was feeling the possibility of its season ending prematurely, it was then. And Dawkins’ will had everything to do with it.
Uniquely, Dawkins grew up with Duke basketball in his life with his father, a Duke player in the 1980s, serving on coach Mike Krzyzewski’s staff for 11 years. That’s what made winning so painful for Coach K, who remembered the younger Dawkins around the Durham campus as a kid.
“I feel bad that they lost. It’s the yin an the yang here because they were deserving of winning,” Krzyzewski added at the postgame news conference. “I feel so proud that those kids played at the level of their coach (Johnny Dawkins). …It’s a tough moment. It’s going to take me a little while to get through it. Same thing with Aubrey. You see him grow up from a little guy.”
Even in defeat, it was the younger Dawkins who Krzyzewski remembered growing up giving one of his most talented teams ever the ultimate scare.
“(Dawkins) was magnificent. Not sensational. Magnificent,” Krzyzewski said during the CBS interview.