COLUMBIA, S.C. — In the final seconds, the basketball reached its inevitable destination. It landed on the fingertips of Aubrey Dawkins, the son of Duke’s favorite son, the star of this thrilling yet awkward hoops family reunion, and now the person who could ruin the most fascinating recruiting experiment of Coach Mike Krzyzewski’s career.
Dawkins leaped and extended his right arm, trying to guide Central Florida teammate B.J. Taylor’s missed bank shot into the basket. Tip it just right, and he would reduce the fabled Duke freshman class to an NCAA tournament second-round flameout. Hit it a little wrong and, well, the natural order would be so heart-wrenching.
Which basketball family would survive? The one he grew up in at Duke, where his father, the great Johnny Dawkins, will always be known as the superstar who spurred a dynasty? Or the one he joined at UCF, where his father is the head coach and, suddenly, a Blue Devil antagonist? In the end, it had to come down to blood.
“An eternity,” Aubrey said of the wait after he touched the ball. “It was up there forever, I felt like, in slow motion.”
He missed, by millimeters. The tip hit the backboard and rolled around and off the rim.
“I mean, heartbreak,” Aubrey said. “That’s the only way to sum it up.”
Final score: Duke 77, UCF 76.
Lasting impression: Sunday was the night when the young Blue Devils, who have feasted on their hype and highlights and NBA potential all season, proved there’s more to them than spectacle.
It took Johnny Dawkins — the recruit who changed everything for Krzyzewski when he arrived in Durham, N.C., from D.C. 37 years ago — to push the program’s most star-studded recruiting class to a level of championship resiliency.
“I was very impressed with the way that Duke, especially with freshmen, was able to withstand some of the shots we were making,” Dawkins said. “It says a lot about their will. It says a lot about their overall mental toughness.”
Some might say the Blue Devils were exposed in this game. That’s only true if there is another team remaining in the NCAA tournament with a 7-foot-6 center, a head coach who played for and coached under Krzyzewski for 10 years and a legacy player capable of going point for point with Zion Williamson. The Knights, with 7-6 Tacko Fall forcing Duke to the perimeter and Johnny Dawkins employing the perfect game plan and his son scoring 32 points, can’t be duplicated.
There are things other teams can implement — such as UCF’s transition defense, which limited Duke to two fast-break points. Dawkins also made a shrewd adjustment when he started daring point guard Tre Jones, who has struggled with his jumper, to shoot. Jones was only 5 for 15 from the field. He missed seven of his eight three-point attempts.
Duke isn’t difficult to figure out, however. The Blue Devils aren’t deep. They rely heavily on the offensive production of Williamson and R.J. Barrett. They’re a bad three-point shooting team (30.2 percent), and they’re awful at the free throw line (69 percent). They’re also crazy explosive, physical, long and capable of overwhelming any opponent with their athleticism on both ends of the court.
This probably won’t be the only time Duke is tested in this tournament. This isn’t the only time Duke (31-5) has been tested this season. Every time the Blue Devils get hot, a faction wants to label them invincible. But they’re young and trying to mask a few flaws. They needed a test like the one UCF provided in the second round. They found out something important about themselves.
When play stopped for several minutes with 2:08 remaining, Krzyzewski gathered his team. The referees were trying to determine whether a dunk by Fall would count. Taylor had missed a jumper with the shot clock expiring, and it was unclear for a long time whether the ball had hit the rim. Ultimately, the officials decided the ball did graze the rim, and Fall’s bucket counted, giving UCF a 74-70 lead. But Krzyzewski was focused on the bigger picture.
“I’m not worried,” he told his players. “You guys live for these moments.”
The confident words mattered. They emboldened Williamson to drive at Fall one more time with 14 seconds remaining and Duke trailing 76-73. Williamson elevated, hung in the air, absorbed Fall’s fifth and final foul and willed a layup into the basket as he hit the ground. He missed the free throw, but with Fall out, Barrett crashed the boards and made the game-winning layup.
Maybe Duke loses the game if Aubrey Dawkins had been able to finish a lob pass from Dayon Griffin a few plays earlier. Maybe Duke loses the game if Williamson had been called for an offensive foul during his fateful last drive to the basket. But the Blue Devils made the plays under pressure. It was just as Krzyzewski had predicted.
“I consider him the greatest coach of all time,” said Williamson, who finished with 32 points and 11 rebounds. “When he looks at you and tells you you’re made for this moment, it’s like the most confidence you can be given. So when I went to the basket, I knew it was going in.”
After Duke beat North Dakota State in the first round, Krzyzewski was asked about the challenge of coaching this team. He didn’t fall back on cliches about youth. He spoke honestly about the need to develop a big-game mind-set at Duke.
“Nobody thinks I have a tough job, so I’m not going to talk about a tough job,” he said. “My job being tough? We’ve been the leader of the pack for about 25 years, so we get everyone’s best shot. That’s the toughest thing. Our guys need to be ready for that each time. So it’s getting kids to understand that. They don’t get that in high school. They hardly play tough games because they’re the best players by far. And all of a sudden, every game they play is a T-shirt. They have blackout day, ‘GameDay,’ the most viewed game — all those things. We’ve played a lot of big games, and I do think it prepares us for this moment where everyone thinks it’s the biggest game.”
This time, the big game came against the man who helped make Duke that leader of the pack. When Johnny Dawkins arrived from old Mackin High in D.C., Krzyzewski was coming off a 10-17 season. He had won 20 games just once in seven seasons as a head coach at Army and Duke. By the time Dawkins was a senior, the Blue Devils were playing in the 1986 national title game, which they lost to Louisville. He scored 2,556 points over four seasons.
Now there’s not a prep player in the country — in the world — whom Duke can’t recruit. Now Duke can make history by being the first team to sign the top three players (Barrett, Williamson and Cam Reddish) in a single class. But sometimes it takes an original to teach those fancy one-and-done stars what it really means to represent the school.
And sometimes that groundbreaking star doesn’t care much about what he did for his alma mater because he’s too busy comforting his current players.
In a sobbing locker room, Dawkins’s voice cracked as he said: “Look, man, it’s going to always end one of two ways when we invest like we invested: celebrating or we’re going to end in tears. We end in tears. That’s because we invested so much in each other and so much in what we were doing. I love you guys. It’s been amazing coaching this group.”
Dawkins expressed that love just minutes after his old coach had hugged him tightly and done the same.
“Johnny’s team was magnificent,” Krzyzewski said. “They were so well prepared. That’s as high a level of any team that we’ve played against all year. They were men.”
Duke moves on now — to the District, Dawkins’s hometown — still alive in its pursuit of a sixth national title. In 1981, this was where Krzyzewski laid eyes on Dawkins, as well as Tommy Amaker.
Thirty-eight years later, Krzyzewski is bringing his latest and perhaps most famous recruiting class to D.C., and he can be certain the Blue Devils have the substance to match their talent. Dawkins, the pioneer turned adversary, made sure of it.
For more by Jerry Brewer, visit washingtonpost.com/brewer.