COLUMBIA, S.C. – The stage was set.
Zion Williamson would walk off the court victorious in the only two collegiate games he would ever play in his home state. Duke would be one-third of the way to its national championship coronation. Along the way, the teacher, Mike Krzyzewski would school the former player and student, UCF coach Johnny Dawkins.
Dawkins’ Knights had other thoughts, however.
In a game it led by no greater than eight points, Duke led for the most important stretch – the final 11 seconds. R.J. Barrett’s put-back of a missed Zion Williamson free throw provided a margin that nearly disappeared, as an Aubrey Dawkins follow of an inexplicably-missed UCF basket on the ensuing possession achingly swirled around the rim before bounding away.
As the final horn sounded, the teacher had indeed vanquished the student, 77-76.
“Dawkins came flying in,” said Duke forward Zion Williamson. “I mean, when he tipped it, you talk about microseconds … When that ball rolled around the rim, it looked like it was going in, but as Coach K talks a lot about the basketball gods, they had our back tonight.”
“We were lucky,” said Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski.
That assessment may be one of Krzyzewski’s most grand understatements.
The son of the student, UCF’s younger Dawkins, torched the Blue Devils to the tune of 32 points on 12-of-18 shooting, including 5-of-7 triples. The Knights canned 50 percent of their shots from distance, assisting on 16 of 26 made baskets.
The 11 turnovers the Knights lodged led to 14 Duke points, though, with none bigger than a missed alley-oop that would have put UCF ahead by six nearing the one-minute mark. The Knights could not convert, though, and Cam Reddish splashed a three on the other end that marked a five-point swing that had an obvious impact on the game’s outcome.
The play everyone will remember, though, was the last one.
“I had a chance at a put-back on B.J. (Taylor)’s floater, and it just didn’t go. I caught it on the rim,” said Dawkins. “I mean, heartbreak. That’s the only way to sum it up. We spent all this time trying to get to this stage, and obviously, we want our journey to continue. When you invest this much in it, it breaks your heart.
“(It was on the rim for) an eternity,” added Dawkins. It was up there forever, I felt like, in slow motion.”
Duke appeared poised to move to the nation’s capital with little resistance, taking a 44-36 advantage to the half. For every Blue Devil punch in the closing stanza, though, there was a UCF counter. The eyes of America turned toward South Carolina’s capital for a riveting – if not polarizing – twenty-minute stretch that took Blue Devils fans and haters alike through an exhausting series of emotions that lasted until the final shot fell away, and beyond.
And then, there was – and is – the relationship between Krzyzewski and Dawkins. The Duke leader struggled after the game to contain his emotion about his former star, who helped develop Krzyzewski’s program into the national standard it has since become.
“Look, I love Johnny,” said Krzyzewski, his voice cracking. “I love Johnny Dawkins. The moments, the times that we spent together in building the program, 10 years on our staff, the connections that we’ve had while he was at Stanford and at Central Florida … He’s a member of our – we’re family. I feel bad that they lost. I mean, I’m exhilar—I’m happy—it’s a yin and a yang, here.
“They were deserving of winning. They were so good, and I’m so proud that those kids played at the level of their coach,” added Krzyzewski. “Obviously, we’re happy we won … It’s a tough moment, and it’ll take me a little while to get through it, to be quite frank with you.”
“I never thought we’d be in this position,” added Dawkins when asked about coaching against his former coach and mentor. “It’s tough. We’re family, and our embrace was one – you know, I love that man. That man, without him, I wouldn’t be where I am today. So he’s meant a lot to me throughout my life, and that’s what type of an embrace it was.”
Now, Duke advances to the Sweet 16 in Washington to face ACC foe Virginia Tech, but by the slimmest of margins. Dawkins, meanwhile, is left to ponder just how close his club came to slapping the UCF sticker on the next line of the bracket in the locker room.
“I thought it was going to go,” said Dawkins of the tip-in attempt at the end of the game. “When that one (Taylor’s shot) didn’t go and it rolled out, I saw Aubrey come into the picture real quick, and he had a quick tip at it. It just kind of hung there, and it just rolled out. It’s part of our game. It’s a fine line, and he just came up a few inches short.”