COLUMBIA, S.C. — There was always a danger of this for Duke, even as the No. 1 team in college basketball won all but one game this season when fully healthy.
Imperfectly constructed, crazy reliant on youth, often prone to tossing bricks at the rim, the margin between history and infamy was set up to be a small one.
This time, in a second-round howitzer of a basketball game, it was just enough.
Duke escaped the NCAA tournament’s second round, 77-76, holding on to beat No. 9 seed UCF when the Knights’ B.J. Taylor and Aubrey Dawkins barely missed shots close to the rim as time expired.
That sequence followed a frantic Duke comeback from down four with 2:09 remaining, and with the Blue Devils completely discombobulated on offense, it appeared UCF was about to land a knockout punch at any moment.
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Instead, a three-pointer by Cam Reddish pulled Duke back within range and in the confrontation America had been waiting for, freshman sensation Zion Williamson challenged UCF’s 7-foot-6 center Tacko Fall at the rim with the Blue Devils down 76-73. Williamson, who scored 32 points on 12-of-24 field goals, skied high in the air, leaning backwards as he banked in a layup and drew Fall’s fifth foul.
Though he missed the free throw that would have tied the game, Duke freshman R.J. Barrett was able to sneak in for a putback that finally gave Duke the lead with 11 seconds left.
Duke advances to the East Regional, where teams will undoubtedly try to do the same thing UCF did — back off its poor shooters completely and force the Blue Devils to figure out how to operate in clogged spaces.
Though Duke eventually figured it out just in time, the Blue Devils shot 35% in the second half.
Dawkins, whose tip-in attempt just before the buzzer seemed to be halfway in before rolling off the rim, scored 32 points, making 12-of-18 shots and 5-of-7 from 3-point range to give the Knights an upset chance.