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Duke prayers answered, Virginia cruises

By David Rogers. March 24, 2019. COLUMBIA, NC – It was a basketball “prize fight” for the ages. A wannabe contender coming of age to go toe-to-toe with the heavyweight champion of the world. Da champ taking it on the chin, clinging to the ropes — and praying for salvation.

COVER IMAGE: Duke freshman guard Tre Jones drives the lane. All photographic images by David Rogers for Blowing Rock News

The curtain-raiser for Sunday night’s card of featured bouts in Round 2 of the 2019 NCAA Men’s Basketball Championships was, indeed, a March maddening affair. Duke vs. Central Florida was more exciting than the thrilla in Manila. And somehow, Duke delivered a “lucky punch” that bedeviled the basketball gods and, after an answered prayer, came away with yet another NCAA tournament prize, 77-76.

It was a decision that could have gone either way., but two missed Central Florida opportunities as the clock ticked toward zero spelled doom for the courageous Knights. By no means did UCF go home with their tails tucked between their legs, but they were sent home nonetheless, a valiant campaign come to an end.

There was no shortage of story lines leading up to what was arguably the marquee matchup of Round 2.

  • Duke, the perennial contender if not champ vs. a still emerging program.
  • Coach K vs. one of his anointed proteges, a decorated former Duke player who cut his teeth in the coaching ranks under the grand master himself.
  • A talented team loaded with immature freshmen on the Duke side, even perhaps a trio of one-and-doners, taking on a lesser known roster filled with seasoned juniors and seniors.
  • Central Florida’s star guard, Aubrey Dawkins, facing a team coached by the man who helped watch him grow up in the Blue Devils’ gym when his father was a Coach K assistant. Was Coach K aware at the time that this gangly, unpolished young boy would grow up to be a threat to the coaching legend’s “March Madness” resume?

And then there was the featured story line before this Round 2 game at the Colonial Life Arena: the “inside” matchup between Duke’s 6-7 freshman forward, Zion Williamson, and UCF’s 7-6 senior center, Tacko Fall.

It was a battle that lived up to its expectations, the Duke phenom finishing with 32 points, 11 rebounds, and four assists while never leaving the court, playing the full 40 minutes.

Dawkins was magnificent.

But with Fall in the defensive paint, more than anyone else on the floor Williamson needed to show off what some have described as his “freakish” athleticism — and his versatility.

He accomplished both. Limited to just one dunk on the night because of Fall’s presence and a pressing Knights defense, Williamson’s scoring effort included nine points from behind the 3-point arc (3-of-7) and 5-of-7 from the foul line. The rest were potshots from inside the arc and layups.

Tacko Fall saw only 25 minutes of court time, spending a lot of time on the bench in foul trouble. He nonetheless accounted for 15 points (14 of which came from seven dunks on his tiptoes) and six rebounds to go along with three blocked shots. For some guys, ONE dunk is the highlight of their collegiate career. For Senegal native Tacko Fall, Central Florida has a “dunk counter”, apparently finishing his career with 88.

At least part of Duke’s offensive scheme had a defensive mission. By attacking Fall in the lane, they would frequently send him to the UCF bench, his “foul trouble” ever worsening. In that sense, Duke succeeded. It’s not that the Knights played poorly during those 15 minutes when Fall was on the bench, because they didn’t, but the looming presence inside the paint was missed on both ends of the court when Fall sat.

Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee – the Knights wouldn’t go away

So much of the time Fall proved as much of a decoy as an offensive weapon and Central Florida used him effectively, luring Williamson or other defenders out to defend him — and leaving an open back door to the basket.

The Knights were a lower-seeded tourney opponent that would just not go away, thanks in large part to the play of 6-6 redshirt junior guard Aubrey Dawkins, the high-scoring playmaker with high caliber hoops DNA coursing through his veins, the progeny of former Duke and NBA star, Johnny Dawkins, his father and now the head coach of the Knights.

You were made for these two minutes.

Young Dawkins has made the most of his genetic gifts with hard work, an ethic probably instilled in him by not just his father, but by Coach K’s influence as he was growing up. Whether he was shooting a three, running the length of the floor for a fast break layup, or floating to the basket for an ally-oop slam dunk, young Dawkins was as entertaining as a basketball player can get. He even poached three steals and was credited with four assists.

Dawkins and Fall were not alone in an effort that would make King Arthur proud of his Knights, however. Guard BJ Taylor played all but one minute of the contest and added 15 points, four rebounds and a steal, including nine points in the last 13 minutes to keep things close.

Afterward, no one was more aware of the moment that almost wasn’t than Duke head coach, Mike Krzyzewski. 

“Johnny’s (Dawkins) team was magnificent,” the Duke mentor gushed. “They were well-prepared. That’s as high of a level as any team we have played against all year. They were men.

“Aubrey (Dawkins) wasn’t outstanding,” Krzyzewski deadpanned in describing the play of the once small kid who hung around the Duke gym when his dad (Johnny Dawkins) was a Krzyzewski assistant coach. “He was magnificent.”

As complimentary of the opponent as he was, Krzyzewski had high praise for his own charges.

Whether a runaway or a nail biter, it is still a Duke win.

“These kids, my guys, hung in there,” he said. “They hung in there because of the momentum of the tournament, what’s going on, (that) you could be defeated right there. Instead, they hung in there. We waited forever about the call for the (disputed) shot clock violation and during that – it was 2:09 left – we talked about how these kids are made for these two minutes. They fought, and Cam (Reddish) hit a huge three.”

Krzyzewski reserved special commendations for Williamson and Barrett.

“The will to win of Zion (Williamson) and RJ (Barrett), you can’t measure it,” said the longtime Duke coach. “It’s just there, and it’s – they’re young, we’re a young group – but what they did right at the end of that game in willing us to win was just absolutely sensational.”

Whether a runaway or a nailbiter, it is still a Duke win and now the Blue Devils advance to the Sweet 16 where they will face a familiar foe in Virginia Tech, a 67-58 winner over upstart Liberty in San Jose, CA earlier in the evening. 

The Hokies accounted for one of Duke’s four ACC regular season losses, a 77-72 on February 26th when Williamson was still unavailable because of the freak injury at the start of a the Blue Devils’ game six days earlier against North Carolina. For this Sweet 16 contest, both Virginia Tech and Duke should be at or near full strength.

The two ACC members will face off on March 29th in Washington, D.C.’s East Regional. The winner will meet the winner of LSU and Michigan St., in the Elite 8, also in D.C.  LSU edged Maryland in the second round, 69-67, while the Spartans manhandled Minnesota to advance, 70-50.

Virginia vs. Oklahoma

Where Duke proved lucky that neither of Central Florida’s last shot opportunities found the bottom of the nets before the buzzer, Virginia carved out a fairly convincing win over Oklahoma in the evening’s nightcap, 63-51.

The confidence with which Oklahoma manhandled Ole Miss on Friday had evaporated. Virginia went on a 7-0 run to start the game, taking advantage of the Sooners’ nervous shots and errant passes, as well as strong play inside during those opening minutes by 6-9 redshirt junior forward Mamadi Diakite.

Once the Sooners’ own 6-9 forward, Brady Manek found his range from the outside, hitting a 3-pointer from the left corner, the #9-seeded Oklahoma side went on a 13-2 run to not just get back in the game, but take the lead.

It wouldn’t hold up for long, however. While Virginia cleaned up its earlier sloppy play to take a 31-22 lead into intermission, Oklahoma reverted to its earlier miscues. Gone was Friday’s dominating crispness against Mississippi. Were the Sooners a bit intimidated? The higher-seeded Virginia roster featured greater length and more speed – and far better execution on both ends of the court.

Diakite finished the night as the game’s high scorer, with 14 points and nine rebounds, as well as three blocks. Guard Ty Jerome added a dozen, with three assists and three steals, while De’Andre Hunter, a 6-7 redshirt sophomore guard, also got into double figures with 10 points to go along with three assists and a blocked shot.

Virginia will take its #1 seed all the way to Louisville on March 28th for the Sweet 16, and if the Cavaliers triumph over Sunday night’s winner of Oregon vs. UC Irvine, they will stay in Louisville for the Elite 8 against either Tennessee or Purdue, both winners on Sunday.

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