Duke players celebrate as time expires in their narrow win over UCF. (Richard Shiro)

Top-seeded Duke, the No. 1 overall seed in the this year’s men’s NCAA tournament, held off upset-minded University of Central Florida, a No. 9 seed, on Sunday but this was a game the Blue Devils had no business winning. It took a stunning and highly improbable series of events for them to prevail. Just how unlikely? Here’s a look.

UCF tilted the game in its favor for the first time, per ESPN’s win probability data, with four minutes to go in the second half after B.J. Taylor hit a three-pointer to put the Knights ahead 70-68, giving UCF a 57 percent chance to win the game. That’s a huge number considering Duke was a 13-point favorite heading into this matchup. Knights forward Dayon Griffin would help improve that projected win rate to 79 percent, grabbing a defensive rebound with 2 minutes 2 seconds left in the game, preserving UCF’s 74-70 lead. The Knights would have a chance to widen that lead to six points if not for a missed alley-oop attempt in transition between Griffin and Aubrey Dawkins.

Granted the alley-oop in transition was a bit more difficult, and considering that was just the second Dawkins dunk attempt this year, converting one earlier in the game. However, he had scored on 46 percent of transition opportunities this season in addition to shooting 55 percent around the basket. He shot 3-for-4 at the rim in the game, the alley-oop accounting for the only miss.

Duke’s Cam Reddish cut the lead to 74-73 after a three-pointer with 1 minute 43 seconds left — a five-point swing in a matter of seconds. The odds were against a make there from Reddish, just a 33-percent shooter from behind the arc.

Then the game got nuts with 15 seconds left.

With the Blue Devils down 76-73, Zion Williamson, the consensus No. 1 pick in the 2019 NBA draft, challenged 7-foot-6 center Tacko Fall at the rim. Williamson got the bucket and drew a foul, something Fall has allowed on only 8 of 132 possessions (6 percent) as the primary defender this season, per Synergy Sports.

Williamson, a 65-percent free-throw shooter, then missed the attempt. Luckily for Duke, teammate and fellow freshman R.J. Barrett got the rebound and the layup to give the Blue Devils a 77-76 lead. That was the stunning bit.

Duke is one of the better offensive rebounding teams in the nation, but it was still unlikely. The Blue Devils claim just 35.6 percent of all potential offensive rebound opportunities this season. The fact that it came on a free-throw attempt is even more remarkable. While offensive rebound percentage off free throws isn’t readily available, research by Ken Pomeroy found that the rate dropped from 15.6 percent in 2010 to 13.4 percent in 2014. Even if you take the higher figure, the odds of the Blue Devils getting a putback basket in that situation were low.

Duke’s one-point lead with 11 seconds left lowered UCF’s win probability from 67 to 25 percent. The Knights would, however, get a final chance to bounce Duke from the tournament.


UCF's projected win probability against Duke (None/ESPN)

Taylor and Dawkins each had opportunities to win before the buzzer; the ball just wouldn’t go in. Taylor got his chance as the ballhandler off a high pick and roll, a play he scored on 45 percent of the time this season, but failed. Dawkins grabbed the offensive rebound but couldn’t convert despite a 63 percent success rate on putbacks in 2018-19.

“That’s a shot I shoot all the time,” Taylor told reporters after the game. “It just rimmed out.”

“Heartbreak,” Dawkins added. “When you invest this much in it, it breaks your heart.”


UCF fails to convert against Duke n the final seconds (None/NCAA)

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