Top overall seed Duke survives No. 9 UCF’s upset bid

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Two days removed from the first NCAA tournament victory in program history, East Region No. 9 UCF had two shots at knocking off top overall seed Duke Sunday in Columbia, South Carolina. But B.J. Taylor’s floater and Aubrey Dawkins’ attempted tip-in both missed the mark in the final seconds, and as a result the Blue Devils pulled out the 77-76 victory.

UCF took a 76-73 lead with 45 seconds remaining, but the failure to cap a key defensive possession with a rebound proved costly. Zion Williamson’s offensive rebound led to a basket and Tacko Fall’s fifth foul with just over 14 seconds to go. RJ Barrett would corral the resulting missed free throw, and his put-back with 11.4 seconds remaining proved to be the game-winning basket.

Williamson finished with 32 points, 11 rebounds and four assists, leading four double-digit scorers on the day. And even with the freshman’s offensive mastery Duke nearly saw its season come to an end, as UCF defended well and also shot the ball well on the other end of the floor.

UCF used multiple looks on defense, from man-to-man to a standard 2-3 zone to a matchup that purposely left Tre Jones and Jordan Goldwire open. Jones and Goldwire (combined 2-for-11 from three Sunday) would both make a three-pointer in the second half, but neither was proficient enough to punish UCF for this approach.

This proved especially problematic for Duke when Cam Reddish was on the bench with four fouls, as the Blue Devils turned to a backcourt tandem that is the team’s best defensively but struggles mightily to shoot the ball.

Reddish (3-for-4; including a huge three with 1:45 remaining) and Barrett (2-for-3) combined to shoot 5-for-7 from three on the day, with Williamson making three of his seven attempts. While future opponents won’t be able to replicate the size that UCF has in Fall, teams can certainly pack it in defensively and force Duke’s non-shooters to prove that they can hit those shots. Johnny Dawkins’ team nearly made Duke pay the price, but two offensive rebounds in the final 30 seconds cost the Knights.

Offensively UCF was proficient, making 48.1 percent of its shots from the field and shooting 9-for-18 from three, with Aubrey Dawkins leading the way. In scoring his 32 points Dawkins shot 12-for-18 from the field (5-for-8 from three), and he also accounted for four assists, three rebounds and three steals. Taylor and Fall added 15 points apiece, with the latter also racking up six rebounds and three blocked shots.

UCF may have revealed the “blueprint” to beating Duke, but it isn’t as simple as allowing them to put up perimeter shots. Knowing the personnel is especially key, as the Knights did a good job of funneling those shots to players Duke would be better served not having shoot. And even with that blueprint UCF was unable to take full advantage itself, which is why Duke is moving on.

“Survive and advance” is the preferred saying this time of year, and Duke managed to do just that.