WASHINGTON -- Destined, or just lucky as all get out, Duke somehow survived again early this morning.
Just like last week in the second round of the NCAA Tournament, a ball hung on the rim only to fall away, allowing the top-seeded Blue Devils to escape defeat and save the ACC from what would’ve been the worst day in 40 years.
Duke defeated Virginia Tech 75-73 hours after North Carolina fell hard to Auburn. When the last shot two shots in regulation by the Hokies missed, the Blue Devils had miraculously avoided ignominy. It was in 1979 when both Duke and North Carolina lost on the same day, an East Region nightmare in Raleigh known to this day as “Black Sunday.”
We were seconds away from a potential Black Friday when a three-pointer from Ty Outlaw missed and went out of bounds off a Duke player’s hands. The inbounds play with 1.1 seconds to play somehow left Virginia Tech guard Ahmed Hill all alone in midair, inches from the rim and a shot at overtime.
The ball rolled off.
Duke rolls on.
“I don’t know what happened,” Zion Williamson, the closest defender on the play, said.
“He missed,” RJ Barrett told him.
The Blue Devils (32-5) will play Michigan State at 5:05 p.m. Sunday with a Final Four trip on the line.
Duke has now survived two straight games by scant inches and appears in no way the team we saw all season. And to be completely honest, Duke has now won three games in the NCAA Tournament against North Dakota State, Central Florida and Virginia Tech.
That would hardly seem to prepare Duke for an East Region final against Michigan State, except for the fact that Duke is 12-2 all-time against the Spartans.
Duke isn’t playing all that well. Teams now know how to attack the Blue Devils on both ends of the floor. But knowing how to do it and pulling it off are two different things.
Williamson is still one of the best players we’ve seen in recent years. Barrett is a 6-7 guard who matches up with any player in the country. And if point guard Tre Jones plays the way he played against Virginia Tech, the Blue Devils are still as good as anybody left in the tournament.
Maybe better than anyone else.
But again, Duke isn’t playing as well as it was early in the season when we all watched the inexplicable 118-84 win over Kentucky in early November. Duke really hasn’t come close to that since.
In the meantime, other teams have been getting better as the Blue Devils have dealt with injuries. Another one hit this weekend when Cam Reddish injured his knee and missed Friday’s game.
Several of Duke’s biggest hurdles between now and a sixth national title are still in the tournament.
North Carolina is not one of them.
The UNC loss to Auburn was being shown to fans inside Capital One Arena, and while fans from Virginia Tech and Michigan State and LSU cheered wildly, Duke fans were a little sheepish.
That’s the nature of the Duke-Carolina rivalry. Through the years, the closer the schools have come to playing that elusive, almost mythical, national title game, strange things have happened.
It’s the third rail of the greatest rivalry in college sports, and it always brings bad things when it begins to loom.
North Carolina was stomped into submission in a horrifying game for UNC fans, a loss so numbing that even Duke fans couldn’t make sense of it.
And then they, too, had to endure yet another gut-wrenching 40 minutes of basketball, dealing with a familiar foe that had taken Duke down a month earlier. And they almost did it again.
That loss to Virginia Tech had bothered Duke fans since the brackets came out. But as the tournament rolled on, it was the looming game of Armageddon that shadowed everything.
Once again, it won’t happen.
Once again, Duke survived.
The memories of Black Sunday were washed away when a basketball rolled off a rim and sent everyone home relieved and worried as all get out.