CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Cincinnati players kept believing even as the final minutes looked dire in the Belk Bowl.
Then the Bearcats had reason for all that optimism.
Cincinnati quarterback Brendon Kay threw an 83-yard touchdown pass to tight end Travis Kelce with 44 seconds remaining and the Bearcats, who scored two touchdowns in the last minute, beat Duke 48-34 on Thursday night at Bank of America Stadium.
The last two minutes created stunning turnarounds in a game full of momentum-shifting moments in extending Duke's decades of postseason misery.
"The resiliency," Kay said. "We've got to make plays and build off it. We knew we had to keep plugging away and eventually it would break our way."
Duke was in position to break a tie until running back Josh Snead fumbled at the Cincinnati 5-yard line with 1:20 to play on a second-down carry as lineman Brandon Mills dislodged the ball.
"You're just in belief that somehow your guys are going to pull it out," Kelce said.
Kay, who'll return for a sixth season in 2013 based on an NCAA ruling earlier this month, might have a hard time topping this one. He was named the game's Most Valuable Player, completing 17 of 25 passes with a bowl-record four touchdown throws.
"This isn't just my (MVP) trophy," Kay said. "This is (for) all these guys. ... It was the only way this senior class could really go out. I was a senior until a couple of weeks ago when I (got) the sixth year."
His final touchdown toss came at the end of the Bearcats' second drive of more than 90 yards in the game.
"We're just trying to get in field-goal range and it opened up," Kay said.
Kelce said: "Kay looked off the safety and hit me right in stride. That's trusting Brendon Kay."
After the go-ahead pass play, linebacker Nick Temple tacked on a clinching touchdown with a 55-yard return of a Sean Renfree interception with 14 seconds left. Renfree completed 37 of 49 passes for 358 yards.
"We had a few bad breaks," Duke wide receiver Conner Vernon said. "We still had a chance to win."
Cincinnati (10-3), which scored 27 unanswered points to wipe out a 16-point deficit and then rallied twice more, racked up its second consecutive 10-win season.
"We hung in there," interim coach Steve Stripling said. "That's the way we've been all year. It was a great finish."
Duke (6-7), playing in its first bowl game since 1994, has gone more than a half-century without a postseason victory.
"We made enough plays to win the game," Duke coach David Cutcliffe said.
It was the highest-scoring game in the bowl's 11-year history even before the last touchdown.
Kay's 25-yard touchdown pass to Chris Moore with 11:19 left gave the Bearcats a 34-31 edge.
Freshman Ross Martin's career-long 52-yard field goal for Duke tied the game at 34-34 with 7:24 remaining.
Cincinnati failed to pick up a first down on its ensuing possession, punting back to Duke. The Blue Devils took over at their own 43-yard line with 5:17 to play and drove deep into Bearcats' territory until the fumble.
Earlier, Brandon Connette's 2-yard pass to tight end David Reeves put Duke back on top at 31-27 after the extra-point kick with 12:45 remaining.
The Blue Devils, who've been winless since a comeback against North Carolina on Oct. 20, gave up at least 42 points in each game of their season-ending five-game losing streak. The bowl setback might be toughest to digest.
"It was crazy," Duke cornerback Ross Cockrell said. "They made more plays than we did. Football is a game of highs and lows and we're at one of our lowest."
Cincinnati went up 20-16 on Tony Miliano's 27-yard field goal to complete an eight-play drive to start the second half.
After Arryn Chenault's interception of Renfree, the Bearcats needed two plays to score. George Winn burst up the middle for a 46-yard touchdown run.
Duke finally responded, with Renfree's 10-yard touchdown pass to Conner Vernon followed by a two-point conversion pass to Issac Blakeney with three minutes left in the third quarter.
For Duke, there were similarities to a 41-20 loss in October at Virginia Tech. The Blue Devils led 20-0 in that one.
Cincinnati wiped out a 16-point deficit to take a 17-16 halftime lead.
The final first-half blow was a 41-yard pass play from Kay to running back Ralph David Abernathy IV with 42 seconds remaining in the second quarter. The score capped a six-play, 98-yard drive that came after a 79-yard punt by Duke's Will Monday.
Martin missed a 48-yard field goal wide left on the last play of the half after a substitution penalty on Cincinnati negated a play in which he split the uprights from 53 yards.
Duke built a 16-0 lead when senior cornerback Tony Foster blocked a punt and recovered it for a first-quarter touchdown.
Leading 16-3, the Blue Devils were poised to make the gap bigger until running back Juwan Thompson's 11-yard pickup on a reception ended in a fumble at the Cincinnati 1-yard line. Linebacker Greg Blair caused and recovered the fumble.
"We've put an emphasis on red-zone defense," Stripling said.
Later in the second quarter, the Bearcats closed to within 16-10 on Kay's 25-yard touchdown pass to Anthony McClung. The five-play drive came after the Cincinnati defense made a fourth-down stop near midfield.
Duke began the scoring when Connette ran 5 yards untouched to cap the game's opening possession. Martin's extra-point kick was blocked by defensive tackle Adam Dempsey, but Martin picked up the ball and dove for the pylon for an apparent two-point conversion. However, the called was overturned by video replay, leaving the Blue Devils with a 6-0 lead.
The ruling ended Duke's 68-game streak without a missed extra point, a run that had been the longest in the country,
The Blue Devils were unfazed, taking their next possession 44 yards. That included a fourth-down pickup when Connette caught a 9-yard pass from Renfree. Duke settled for a 33-yard Martin field goal.
The Bearcats put together their first scoring drive late in the first quarter with Miliano kicking a 45-yard field goal.
Duke's first play from scrimmage was a season-long 21-yard reception for Thompson. On the next possession, Renfree overthrew Thompson's outstretched hands on a would-be touchdown that would have covered 29 yards.
NOTES: The Bearcats were playing under Stripling before Tommy Tuberville arrives to replace departed Butch Jones. Tuberville was in attendance. ... The game, which was the first meeting between the teams, began in 45-degree temperatures. ... Miliano's 45-yard field goal was the longest in the bowl's 11-year history. ... Duke's last bowl victory was in the 1961 Cotton Bowl.