The Duke Blue Devils have flaws. Many flaws. And for two hours on Friday night in Washington, D.C., Virginia Tech poked at them. Prodded. Raised the possibility that those flaws might be one too many for a Final Four run.
But the Duke Blue Devils, as you might have heard, also have Zion Williamson.
Around him, they have one of the best freshman classes in recent college basketball memory.
And for the second consecutive NCAA tournament game, they had a bit of good fortune at the buzzer:
Duke survives a last-second scare again
Down 75-73 with less than 10 seconds remaining, fourth-seeded Virginia Tech had three opportunities to win Friday’s Sweet 16 showdown or send it to overtime.
To be frank, they shouldn’t have had three opportunities. First, Ahmed Hill missed a 3-pointer from the left corner. Kerry Blackshear corralled the offensive rebound on the opposite side of the floor, but replays showed his foot was out of bounds as he did.
Refs missed the call, though, and after a timeout, Virginia Tech had chance No. 2. This time it was in Ty Outlaw’s hands. But Outlaw missed another would-be winner.
Again, though, Duke couldn’t secure the rebound. As the clock ticked toward triple-zeros, Barrett tried to save the ball from going out of bounds. It appeared he had. And had he, the game would have been over. But officials ruled – questionably – that the ball had bounced on the baseline before Barrett could get to it. So Virginia Tech had life.
This time, they got a tremendous look at the rim. Hill evaded Williamson, spun toward the basket, and caught the lob. His short-range attempt, though, was wide left.
And five days after Duke survived when a last-second underdog layup rolled agonizingly off the rim ... well, they did exactly that again.
Duke wins behind three star freshmen
Even without one of that freshman class’ four premium members, Cam Reddish, three of the four were just barely special enough to see the Blue Devils through to an Elite Eight showdown with Michigan State.
The three freshmen – Williamson, Tre Jones and RJ Barrett – made play after play after play. They finished with a combined 63 points – and 37 of Duke’s 41 in the second half. And Duke needed every single one of them to hold off the Hokies.
Williamson made the most eye-popping plays. He was superhuman early, soaring for blocks and put-back slams.
But he wasn’t as much of a focal point as he needed to be early. His 11 first-half points were efficient but insufficient. Virginia Tech led by four at the break.
And the Blue Devils would have been in an even deeper hole had it not been for Tre Jones’ shooting. Virginia Tech didn’t dare Tre Jones to shoot like UCF did. But Jones was nonetheless shooting, and doing so accurately. Remarkably accurately. He hit three of his four first-half 3-pointers, and five of seven on the night – the first time he’d made more than one in a game since Duke’s fourth of the season, on Nov. 19.
But it was Williamson and his roommate, RJ Barrett, who really led the Duke comeback in the second half. Barrett had been more of a distributor in the first, racking up only three points but dishing out seven assists. In the second, he did what he does best: score.
He poured in 15 second-half points despite not making a single 3-pointer all night. His points-assists double-double was the first by a Duke player in the NCAA tournament since Bobby Hurley’s in the early 1990s. He was superb as ever going to his left, finishing off balance and through contact.
Williamson, meanwhile, was darn near unstoppable. Virginia Tech tried everything – double-teams, sometimes triple-teams. It left shooters alone to help on his drives, and did take a couple of charges on the Duke megastar.
But Zion didn’t miss a second-half field goal. He was 11 for 14 on the night. He pulled game-goers and television viewers out of their seats with a turbo-boosted alley-oop dunk in transition that put the Blue Devils up six:
He seemingly got to the rim at will:
He, Jones and Barrett willed the Blue Devils to victory.
In the process, they were again outed as vulnerable. Virginia Tech needed no funky defensive scheme or 7-foot-6 center. It didn’t even need a piping-hot night beyond the arc. It shot 9-for-26 from 3-point range, below its top-10 nationally season average. For months, Hokie minds may replay misses around the rim, wondering what might have been, especially if Duke goes on to win a national title.
And it very well still might. Williamson is that good. Barrett and Jones can be that good. So can Reddish if his mysterious leg injury, revealed to the public mere minutes before tipoff, doesn’t keep him out for too long.
But Duke is not the inexorable force that pre-tournament betting odds suggested it was. It might not be the best team at the Big Dance. Heck, it might not even be the best in its own region. In less than 48 hours, we’ll find out.
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