COLUMBIA, S.C. — With 2:09 remaining in Sunday’s second-round game with UCF — and possibly in Duke’s season, Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski gathered his shaken team.
Referees were checking the monitor to see if UCF’s 7-foot-6 big man Tacko Fell’s dunk should have counted or if there was a shot clock violation. The arena video board had already confirmed that the shot was good, and the Blue Devils were about to go down four points.
Duke, who entered the game as the top seed in the tournament and the No. 1 team in the nation, was 129 seconds away from seeing its season end, along with the college careers of the best freshman class in school history.
Aubrey Dawkins, son of UCF coach Johnny, a kid who grew up in Cameron Indoor while his dad served as Coach K’s assistant, had torched the Blue Devils for 32 points on 12-of-18 shooting, including 5 of 7 from three.
After closing the first half with a 10-0 run that finally gave the Blue Devils some breathing room, Duke proceeded to shoot just 35 percent from the field in the second half, allowing UCF a 10-2 run of its own to pull in front by two possessions.
As the team watched the referees watch the replay and waited for the bad news, Krzyzewski was already preparing them for the task at hand.
“This moment is not bigger than you,” he told his shell-shocked freshmen. “You were made for this moment.”
“When he looks at you and tells you that you’re made for this moment,” Zion Williamson said, “it’s like the most confidence you can be given.”
As the referees put the two points on the board — the last field goal UCF would score — Coach K delivered one final message to his team:
No plays, no strategy. The time for X’s and O’s had long since passed. He sent them onto the floor with four words:
“Fight like a fist.”
“It means five of us, fighting together as one,” Cam Reddish explained. Reddish threw the first punch, knocking down a 3-point shot to cut the deficit to one.
After two free throws by the Knights, Duke desperately searched for a 3-point shot as the seconds drained away. Zion Williamson — who matched a career high with three makes from long distance in the game — missed a shot, but Javin DeLaurier got the rebound and another life for Duke.
DeLaurier played the final 3:50, without a break, with four fouls, getting two offensive rebounds, a defensive rebound and a steal over that time.
With 14 seconds left, Williamson drove the lane and scored on a layup, drawing a foul and cutting the UCF lead to one and scoring his 32nd point on the night. He went to the line with the chance to tie the game.
The top player in the nation released the ball and cringed.
“I could see it was going short,” Williamson said. “Then I saw RJ.”
Barrett wanted the chance to be the hero. After all, he’d just been told that he was made for this moment.
“I was just thinking what can we do to win this game?” he said. “I remember watching March Madness and watching a whole bunch of games and seeing missed free throws. Somebody gets a rebound and a putback. So I thought, ‘I’m just going to try to do whatever I can to get this rebound.’”
It didn’t work.
RJ Barrett was boxed out by Dawkins and seemed to have no shot at the rebound. Coach K’s words still echoed, however.
“Fight like a fist.”
“I saw Javin DeLaurier come through from the other side,” Barrett said. “I don’t know how he did that.”
He did that by locking arms with Collin Smith and pushing his way past, getting inside position.
“He sealed off everyone,” Barrett said, referring to DeLaurier putting a screen on the two UCF players who had a chance at the ball.
All Barrett had to do at that point was catch and release. The short putback shot gave Duke a one-point lead with 11 seconds left.
“I wanted to celebrate,” Williamson said. “But we had to get back on defense.”
“We were in a panic,” DeLaurier agreed. “everyone was trying to get back, looking for their man.”
With eight seconds left, UCF called a time out and drew up a final play.
Krzyzewski gave one final message to his team. “Go out there and play defense. You’ve got to play like there’s no tomorrow.”
BJ Taylor took a tough baseline jumper that missed.
“Tre (Jones) played great defense and got him to shoot like an off-balance shot,” Williamson said.
The Blue Devils weren’t out of the woods yet. Dawkins was ready to play the hero one more time.
Dawkins got the offensive rebound and put it back up. The ball hit the rim and rolled.
“Dawkins came flying in,” Williamson said. “I mean, when he tipped it, you talk about microseconds, when that ball rolled around the rim, it looked like it was going in.”
Tre Jones added: “It seemed to roll around forever.”
The ball completed its trip around the rim and fell. One direction or the other.
It looked like it was going to drop in.
“Not like this,” DeLaurier recalled saying as he watched the ball. “Not like this. Not like this. Not like this.”
It was out of the players’ hands. After 40 minutes of heroic performances on both sides and 129 seconds of fighting like a fist, college careers and championship careers hinged on the whims of fate and gravity.
“An eternity,” Dawkins said. “It was up there forever, I felt like, in slow motion. Once I saw it go past the midpoint and roll out, it was, at that point, nothing left to do.”
Finally it fell, on Duke’s side of the ledger, off to the side, out of the hoop, and Duke lived to play again, in Washington, D.C., next weekend.
“Coach K talks a lot about the basketball gods,” Williamson said. “They had our back tonight.”
When you’re made for the moment and fight like a fist, they tend to do that.