Until Sunday night, UCF was merely a three-initial No. 9 seed in the NCAA tournament — just another face on the dance floor to a lot of the public, and an easy second-round victim to scratch off in their brackets.
Until Sunday night, the Knights had a 24-8 record that suggested little magic, but did include a loss to Florida Atlantic and two 20-point thrashings by Memphis.
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Until Sunday night, Aubrey Dawkins to a national audience was . . . well, just who was Aubrey Dawkins? Oh yeah, the coach’s son. Must be pretty good, with a 15-point average.
Until Sunday night, the UCF Knights had no particular reason to be included in any NCAA tournament memory banks. They’d won one game in their entire history — and that was Friday.
They have a reason now.
There will be 67 disappointed losers in this NCAA Tournament, and there have been thousands since it all began back in 1939. All endure sad, sometimes excruciating ends. But only a few really go on the wall of the What-Might-Have-Been Hall of Fame, and we just got a new nominee.
“Magnificent,” Mike Krzyzewski said when it was over and Duke had somehow gotten by 77-76. But he didn’t mean his locker room full of future NBA draft picks. He meant the other player, and the other coach, and the other team.
“It’s a tough moment, and it will take me a little while to get through it, to be quite frank with you,” Krzyzewski went on. And he won.
Consider the factors at work in this epic.
Duke, with a lineup of McDonald’s All-Americans, led by the most ballyhooed college basketball player on the planet.
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UCF, and if Tacko Fall wasn’t 7-6, much of the nation could not have told you one single, solitary thing about the Knights before Sunday.
Duke, with Krzyzewski chasing his 13th Final Four.
UCF, coached by the man who carried Krzyzewski to his first one. Johnny Dawkins. And son Aubrey, who as a little boy — with his father then a Duke assistant — hung around Cameron Indoor Stadium, shooting baskets.
Duke — No. 1 in the rankings and in the bracket and in conventional wisdom as being too mighty for even the big guys out there to stop — needing the Knights to botch an open lob-and-dunk and not block out on a missed free in the final two minutes to survive, let alone advance.
UCF, who might have won anyway had a shot by BJ Taylor not barely rolled off, and then had a last-second tip by Dawkins — he seemed to fly in from the upper deck — not rolled around every side of the rim before spinning out.
“It kills me, it didn’t fall,” Taylor said of his shot.
“It was up there forever. I felt like, in slow motion. Once I saw it go past the midpoint and roll out, it was, at that point, nothing left to do,” Dawkins said of his tip.
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So much to imagine.
Imagine Zion Williamson and RJ Barrett and all the other glittering names from Duke not even getting to the second week. Sunday was Krzyzewski’s 1474th game as a coach, and none of the other 1,473 would have been more shocking.
Imagine Johnny Dawkins gets the biggest win of his life — against his mentor.
Imagine the Aubrey Dawkins tap goes in — as physics and geometry and Isaac Newton would swear it should have. You’re talking about something on the short list of most dramatic game-winning baskets in the history of the tournament.
Couldn’t be more proud of what these guys showed out there tonight and every step of the way these last three years.— Johnny Dawkins (@Coach_Dawkins) March 25, 2019
Thank you to our seniors for helping to build this thing and I’m glad you were able to leave your legacy here at UCF. Go Knights. #chargeon pic.twitter.com/4SLB4oCcze
The long post-game embrace between Krzyzewski and Dawkins would no doubt still have happened, just that the feelings would have been reversed. “That man, without him, I wouldn’t be where I am today,” Dawkins said. “So he has meant a lot to me throughout my life.”
So many rich stories that could have been. That’s why the underdog who helped create the moment will linger. UCF is more nationally known in defeat than it ever was in victory.
Duke goes to Washington, D.C., now, for the East Regional. The Knights go home to Florida, but they just became one of the teams who frames the final narrative of the 2019 tournament, no matter who wins it.
“Coach K talks a lot about the basketball gods,” Williamson said. “They had our back tonight.”
Stand tall, UCF Knights. You know you’ve done something special, when it takes the gods to beat you.