COLUMBIA, S.C. — For a half-second, Tre Jones admitted, he thought it was over.
The team some had called the greatest in college basketball history was going to fall short. The preseason, midseason and postseason favorite to win a national title was going to be stunned in South Carolina yet again. The final image of this Duke team, before it goes its separate ways to make millions in the NBA, would again be on the wrong end of a March Madness classic.
“Obviously, it looked pretty good,” Jones said.
Then, somehow, Aubrey Dawkins’ flying tip-in rolled off the rim and was deflected into the hands of RJ Barrett, who sent it flying as the buzzer sounded, Colonial Life Arena erupted and Zion Williamson let out a primal yell at midcourt.
From trailing by three with 45 seconds remaining to a 77-76 victory over eighth-seeded Central Florida on Sunday night in the second round of the NCAA Tournament, Duke advanced to the Sweet 16 in pursuit of its sixth national title.
“Crazy stuff,” Barrett said. “I don’t know how we won it.”
More than half an hour later, the disbelief hadn’t worn off in the Duke locker room as players shook their heads, recounting the game that easily became the most exciting of a tournament marked by blowouts.
Three times on Sunday, it appeared the Blue Devils were ready to run away from the Knights, and three times, UCF used its experience to fight back, with its last run resulting in a four-point lead with 2:08 to play.
Javin DeLaurier said those moments are no more enjoyable at this point, but based on Duke’s path to this point, there was no panic in the huddle as Mike Krzyzewski spoke to his team.
“Just be who we are,” Cam Reddish said of Krzyzewski’s message. “Go out there and play our game and be confident, trust our work and trust each other. It was simple: Just go out there and be us.”
But his wasn’t the only voice.
“We all were saying things we felt at that moment,” freshman guard Tre Jones said. “Coach was speaking a lot, but we all were giving it our all. Everything we’ve sacrificed and put into this season and this team, everybody just wants to win so bad, so we all were doing everything we could down that stretch.”
It took everyone.
Jordan Goldwire, a former three-star recruit, made a key 3-pointer. DeLaurier, who finished with two points, grabbed three rebounds in the last 1 minute, 15 seconds. Cam Reddish, nagged by foul-trouble all night, hit a 3-pointer to cut UCF’s lead to 74-73 with 1:43 remaining.
And after the supporting cast did their part, the box-office stars delivered as Zion Williamson absorbed contact and converted a layup over the 7-6 Tacko Fall with 14 seconds remaining, setting up Barrett’s game-winner, when he grabbed an offensive rebound off a missed a free throw and dropped in a shot from two feet out to make it 77-76.
But Duke wasn’t out of the woods yet, and out of a timeout, B.J. Taylor got an excellent jump and beat Jones to the corner, putting up a runner off the glass that looked good before rimming out.
As the Blue Devils stood around, Aubrey Dawkins, who scored 32 points, flew in with a tip that rolled softly onto the rim.
“My heart just dropped,” DeLaurier said. “It feels like forever, you’re just waiting to see which way it’s going to go.”
Somehow, it didn’t go UCF’s way.
“You talk about microseconds, when that ball rolled around the rim, it looked like it was going in,” Williamson said. “Coach K talks a lot about the basketball gods, they had our back tonight.”
The Blue Devils move forward, beneficiary of not one, but two similar rolls this season and winner of a thriller against North Carolina in the ACC Tournament.
“Every team that wins it gets some type of rolls or some type of calls,” Jones said. “There’s something that happens throughout the tournament or their season that goes their way to help them win it all. Hopefully that’s what happened in this case.”
Could it have been Duke’s destiny that kept Dawkins’ tip from falling in?
“Destiny is a big word,” DeLaurier said, “But I definitely think there was somebody up there looking down, smiling on us tonight.”