COLUMBIA, S.C. - The laws of physics almost pushed Duke out of the NCAA Tournament tonight, but the Blue Devils somehow beat gravity itself in the end.
As a nation of basketball fans held its breath, Duke escaped South Carolina when a series of events, some human and some inhumane, conspired to lift the top-seeded Blue Devils out of harms way.
Duke held off Central Florida 77-76 after the upstart Golden Knights took full measure of the Blue Devils, possibly exposing them to future threats. This one seemed to take a toll on Duke.
Had they lost this game, basketball fans would’ve given this game a name and swept the Blue Devils off into the trash bin of infamy.
Somehow, Duke didn’t lose. Somehow, the phenomenal Zion Williamson was left floor-bound like everyone else, watching in helpless shock as a basketball rolled around and off a fateful rim.
That rim had as much to do with the outcome of the game as anything or anyone else.
Williamson said time stopped as the ball hung on the inside of the hoop, Duke’s season and this team’s legacy in the balance.
Rewind to the remarkable moments leading up to that, and we might’ve broken down this game for ages. Instead, the film of this game is already in the hands of every team and coach between here and Minneapolis.
And yes, that includes the one in Chapel Hill.
Duke deserved to lose this game. Or rather, UCF deserved to win it.
And granted, no one else left has a 7-6 giant standing in front of the rim or a son of a legacy making courageous shots in the face of the program that raised him. Johnny Dawkins’ son was amazing. And the Blue Devils still have Williamson, who won the game for Duke in a remarkable display of resourcefulness, re-imagining his game as it unfolded, becoming a player we’d never seen before and in the end, making an incredible and controversial move that saved Duke, and to many, the NCAA Tournament itself.
He made three-pointers and got his shots blocked. He collided time and again at the rim before realizing he wasn’t going to be dunking tonight, opting instead for runners and bank shots and open-court passes and defensive stands that kept Duke in a game it seemed destined to lose.
But it also revealed a hard late-season truth about Duke. This isn’t the team we saw before his injury. And he’s not the player he was.
Early in the season, the book on Williamson was that he was not a good ballhandler in traffic, that he relied on the dunk too much and wasted precious seconds in possessions that ended in bull-rush drives to the rim.
Good and bad, that’s exactly what we saw tonight.
The presence of the massive UCF center Tacko Fall took much of Williamson’s game away and forced Duke to become a team of gunners with their hero stumbling around looking for a crease.
And as irony would have it, he did figure it out. He found his creases, while losing the handle on various drives and direction changes in traffic. And with the game on the line, he indeed lowered his shoulder and knocked a UCF player for a 20-foot slide on his rear, then for the first time all night got to the rim against Fall, scoring in midst of collision and a whistle and a gasp from everyone in the area.
It was awesome. It was desperation. It was Williamson with the entire season on his shoulders and the biggest man in America between him and the rim.
He made the shot. He saved the day.
And now we move on.
Duke will play in the nation’s capital this week, a bruised and bloodied team with what suddenly feels like an entire season ahead. The 31-5 Blue Devils have been pushed beyond their limit in the NCAA Tournament and somehow survived. They have been exposed as a team dependent on three-point shooters who aren’t all that accurate, a team that struggles against size and a team that has a tendency to miss free throws.
And yet Duke is still playing, in part because of a rim, in part because of a whistle and in part because it has the one player no one else has.