UCF comes inches from upset of Duke, but Zion Williamson and Blue Devils survive

The Duke Blue Devils were national title favorites. The only college basketball team the sports world wanted to talk about, with the biggest college basketball superstar in decades. And on Sunday, they came inches away from not even making it out of the 2019 NCAA tournament’s opening weekend.

Duke held on to beat UCF by a single point, 77-76, after two UCF attempts in the final five seconds rolled agonizingly off the rim:

R.J. Barrett was the game-winner for the Blue Devils with a put-back off a Zion Williamson missed free throw with 11 seconds remaining:

Williamson was at the line to potentially tie the game after scoring over 7-foot-6 UCF center Tacko Fall with the Blue Devils down three. It was Fall’s fifth foul, and Williamson’s 31st and 32nd points:

UCF had erased an eight-point halftime deficit, and had taken a four-point lead late. The underdog got a stop, and had a chance to extend the advantage to six with under two minutes remaining, but flubbed an alley-oop in transition:

That the Knights were even in the game was thanks to a father-son duo. UCF head coach Johnny Dawkins, a Coach K disciple, drew up a masterful gameplan. His son, Aubrey, scored 32 points, and had the Blue Devils on the ropes.

But Duke’s big three made three big plays. Cam Reddish hit a 3 to cut UCF’s 74-70 lead to one after that turnover in transition. Williamson used every bit of his superhuman strength on the and-one. And Barrett picked up his roommate by rebounding his miss and winning the game.

In coming oh so close, the Knights might have shown how to beat the Blue Devils. Dawkins’ gameplan was extreme – borderline revolutionary. It might turn out to be a blueprint.

The best March Madness 2019 mascots
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The best March Madness 2019 mascots
IRVINE, CA - FEBRUARY 06: UC Irvine mascot Peter the Anteater has some fun with court-side fans during their men's basketball game against Cal State Fullerton at Bren Events Center in Irvine on Wednesday, February 6, 2019. UC Irvine defeated Cal State Fullerton 60-53. (Photo by Kevin Sullivan/MediaNews Group/Orange County Register via Getty Images)
SALT LAKE CITY, UT - DECEMBER 08: The Utah State mascot Big Blue just before a game between the Weber State Wildcats and the Utah State Aggies on December 08, 2018, at Vivint Smart Smart Home Arena in Salt Lake City, Utah.(Photo by Boyd Ivey/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
BROOKLYN, NY - MARCH 14: Saint Louis Billikens mascot during the first half of the Atlantic 10 Tournament second round college basketball game between the St Louis Billikens and the Richmond Spiders on March 14, 2019 at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, NY. (Photo by John Jones/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Jan 19, 2019; Oxford, MS, USA; Mississippi Rebels mascot Tony the Landshark stands behind the court during the second half against the Arkansas Razorbacks at The Pavilion at Ole Miss. Mandatory Credit: Matt Bush-USA TODAY Sports
NORFOLK, VA - MARCH 06: The Old Dominion Monarchs mascot on the floor during a college basketball game against the Southern Miss Golden Eagles at the Ted Constant Convocation Center on March 6, 2019 in Norfolk, Virginia. (Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images) *** Local Caption ***
LAS VEGAS, NEVADA - MARCH 14: The Oregon Ducks mascot The Duck walks on the court with the ball in its mouth during a quarterfinal game of the Pac-12 basketball tournament against the Utah Utes at T-Mobile Arena on March 14, 2019 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
LAS VEGAS, NEVADA - MARCH 15: The Washington Huskies mascot Harry the Husky plays basketball before a semifinal game of the Pac-12 basketball tournament against the Colorado Buffaloes at T-Mobile Arena on March 15, 2019 in Las Vegas, Nevada. The Huskies defeated the Buffaloes 66-61. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
BROOKLYN, NY - NOVEMBER 19: The Temple Owls Mascot during the first half of the Legends Classic College Basketball Game between the Virginia Commonwealth Rams and the Temple Owls on November 19, 2018 at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, NY. (Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
CHARLOTTESVILLE, VA - FEBRUARY 02: Cavman, the Virginia Cavaliers mascot, performs before the start of a game against the Miami Hurricanes at John Paul Jones Arena on February 2, 2019 in Charlottesville, Virginia. (Photo by Ryan M. Kelly/Getty Images)
Mar 11, 2019; Uncasville, CT, USA; The UCF Knights mascot performs during a timeout in the second half during in the women's American Conference Tournament against the UConn Huskies at Mohegan Sun Arena. UConn defeated UCF 66-45. Mandatory Credit: David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports
LAS VEGAS, NEVADA - MARCH 12: The Saint Mary's Gaels mascot and cheerleaders line up on the court before the championship game of the West Coast Conference basketball tournament between the Gaels and the Gonzaga Bulldogs at the Orleans Arena on March 12, 2019 in Las Vegas, Nevada. The Gaels defeated the Bulldogs 60-47. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

But that won’t be any consolation to UCF. It won’t stem inescapable thoughts of what could have been – what, if one of two layups had been an ounce lighter off the glass, would have made the Knights the biggest story of March.

UCF, Johnny Dawkins provide blueprint for defending Duke

Mike Krzyzewski and Johnny Dawkins know each other well. UCF’s head man played four years under Coach K at Duke, then spent a decade on K’s staff as an assistant. And their battle on Sunday was just as fascinating as Tacko vs. Zion.

K made the first major adjustment. He went to a zone press late in the first half to get UCF uncomfortable. And it worked to perfection. It helped force three UCF turnovers and propel a 10-0 Blue Devil run. Duke went to the locker room with a 44-36 lead, and seemingly with the game in hand.

Coming out of halftime, though, Dawkins had an adjustment of his own. And this one was even more extreme. At one point, he put Fall on 6-foot-2 point guard Tre Jones. Except Fall didn’t really pay attention to Jones. He hung out in the paint, daring Jones – a 24 percent 3-point shooter – to pull from the perimeter. Jones did a few times, and missed a few times.UCF paid similarly little attention to Jordan Goldwire, a 9 percent 3-point shooter. Instead, it sent double-teams at Reddish and Barrett, and walled off the paint for Williamson. Duke hit just three of its first 18 second-half field goal attempts. UCF came all the way back to take the lead.

Then K went back to the zone press. Jones hit one of his wide open 3s. Goldwire hit one as well. So did Williamson. Duke regained a seven-point lead.

But Dawkins stuck with the strategy. K and Duke never really figured it out. Goldwire would stand on the left wing, completely ignored – by both UCF and his Blue Devil teammates. Even when K removed him from the game, reinserting Javin Delaurier, Duke couldn’t hide Jones, who took and missed another late 3.

It was only in the final minutes that the Blue Devils came back, made a few plays, and advanced to the Sweet 16.

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