COLUMBIA, S.C. — Sometime in the early 1980s, before Duke became perhaps the most recognized brand in college basketball, Coach Mike Krzyzewski came to the District on a recruiting trip. One of the players he scouted at a summer league game was Johnny Dawkins. The guard, who played high school basketball at Mackin, wound up enrolling at Duke and was part of the starting backcourt in Krzyzewski’s first appearance in the national championship game in 1986.
More than three decades later, Krzyzewski, his lips trembling and his eyes tearing up, spoke about the uncomfortable position of having to coach against his former player and assistant coach, who this season directed Central Florida to its first NCAA tournament berth in 14years.
That the top-seeded Blue Devils outlasted No. 9 seed Central Florida, 77-76, on Sunday night was of little consolation to Krzyzewski, given the coach he had to beat to advance to the East Region’s round of 16 this week at Capital One Arena in Washington.
“I’m going to start crying,” Krzyzewski said. “I love Johnny Dawkins — the moments, the times we’ve spent together building the program, 10 years on our staff, the connections we had while he was at Stanford and Central Florida. He’s a member of — we’re family. I feel bad that they lost. I’m happy; it’s a yin and a yang here because they were deserving of winning, and I’m so proud that their kids played at the level of their coach. It’s hard to describe.”
RJ Barrett’s putback of Zion Williamson’s missed free throw with 11 seconds to play provided the final margin for Duke (31-5), which overcame what Krzyzewski called a “magnificent” performance from Aubrey Dawkins. The son of the Knights’ coach scored 32 points on 12-for-18 shooting before a packed house at Colonial Life Arena.
Aubrey Dawkins, with whom Krzyzewski also is close, had his putback attempt of B.J. Taylor’s missed shot rattle around the rim and out at the buzzer.
“I mean, heartbreak,” Aubrey Dawkins said. “That’s the only way to sum it up.”
Williamson led Duke with 32 points, 11 rebounds and four assists. Fellow blue-chip freshman Barrett added 16 points, eight rebounds and four assists. The Blue Devils, who played without injured reserve forward Jack White, leaned almost entirely on their starters, getting just 24 minutes and three points from the two reserves who played.
Tacko Fall, the Knights’ 7-foot-6 center, finished with 15 points, six rebounds and three blocks before fouling out with 14 seconds left.
The fifth foul was part of the decisive sequence. With the Knights leading 76-73, Williamson bulled to the basket and drew a whistle while scoring over Fall. His ensuing free throw missed short but was grabbed by Barrett, who dropped it in for the final score of the game.
Almost immediately after the gut-wrenching finish for Central Florida (24-9), Krzyzewski and Johnny Dawkins embraced at midcourt. They spoke briefly, and both later shared some of the details of the conversation. It sounded much more like a father and son speaking about each other than a coach and former player.
“I never thought we’d be in this position,” Dawkins said. “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 embrace it was.”
Just a day earlier, Krzyzewski described the displeasure of knowing he would be facing one of his former players in the round of 32 while also recounting his fond memories of first encountering Dawkins at the Jelleff league, one of the longest-running outdoor summer leagues in the D.C. area.
As it happened, playing one game after Dawkins was Tommy Amaker, at the time a student at W.T. Woodson High in Fairfax County. Amaker joined Dawkins at Duke, forming the backcourt that Krzyzewski called a foundation of his program, which since has won five national championships.
“It was amazing that on that day, I saw one of the great backcourts in the history of the game, and I can remember Alma Amaker [Tommy’s mother] in the stands. It’s probably a recruiting violation, but I just waved to her.”
Krzyzewski hired Dawkins as an assistant in 1998. Two years later, he promoted Dawkins to associate head coach. The following season, the Blue Devils won their third national championship.
Since taking over at Central Florida in 2016, Dawkins has transformed a program that had been mired in NCAA violations. This season, Dawkins directed Central Florida to the most victories in program history. It beat multiple ranked opponents in a season for the first time as well.
Then Central Florida defeated No. 8 seed Virginia Commonwealth, 73-58, on Friday in the round of 64 for its first NCAA tournament win, setting up Sunday’s meeting — which Dawkins and Krzyzewski admitted they wished didn’t have to happen.
“That’s why I hate . . .” Krzyzewski said, his voice trailing off. “Obviously we’re happy we won because unless you’re an idiot — although some of you might say I fit that description — it’s a tough moment, and it will take me a little while to get through it, to be quite frank with you.”