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March Madness 2019: Even in classic Duke victory, Tacko Fall stood above all

Sporting News logo Sporting News 3/25/2019 Mike DeCourcy

a person holding a basketball © Provided by Perform Media Channels Limited COLUMBIA, S.C. — This is how you can get an approximation of how 7-6, 310-pound UCF center Tacko Fall impacts a basketball game. Duke forward Zion Williamson — the biggest star college basketball has seen in a generation — scored 32 points, grabbed 11 rebounds, passed for four assists and seemed almost not to matter in the final outcome of the game. Until, of course, he did. 

This second-round NCAA Tournament East Region game was entirely defined by Fall. It could comfortably be ranked as one of the great games in the history of the event, but it also stood as unique among the thousands that have filled March Madness. Entirely because of Tacko.

When he was on the court, the contest belonged to UCF. When he was off, it was Duke's. Tacko wasn't the best player in the game. He probably wasn't the fourth-best. He just was the one who mattered above all — yes, definitely above. It wasn’t until he was disqualified with 12 seconds left that Duke’s pursuit of Mike's Krzyzewski's sixth national championship was reanimated. It was that close to expiring.

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"These kids, my guys hung in there," Krzyzewski told reporters. "They hung in there because just the momentum of the tournament, what’s going on, you could be defeated right there. And instead they hung in there.

“The will to win of Zion and RJ, you can’t measure it. It’s just there. We’re a young group, but what they did right at the end of that game, in willing us to win, was just absolutely sensational.”

Duke trailed by four points with 2:08 remaining. A season that contained such promise — when the Devils opened with 23 victories in their first 25 games, when Williamson returned after missing six games to help Duke claim the ACC Tournament championship and when they were installed as the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAAs just a day later — appeared two-plus minutes away from ending.

There was a replay review after Fall had recorded one of his no-vert-needed dunks to put the Knights ahead by four. It wasn’t clear whether a BJ Taylor jumper had caught the rim and engendered a shot-clock reset, or maybe there’d been a violation before Fall retrieved the ball and slammed it home for a multi-possession lead.

“We waited forever about the call for the shot-clock violation,” Krzyzewski said, “and during that, we talked about, ‘These kids are made for these two minutes.'”

Fall was in the game and commanding the space around the basket. During the 25 minutes he was able to play in between personal foul calls, Duke shot 15 of 41 from the field, a .366 percentage. When he sat, including on Barrett’s game-winning layup, they were 16 of 26, or .615.

His impact around the goal was obvious and logical, but even on point guard Tre Jones’ 3-point attempt with 10:56 left, Fall left his station in the middle of the lane, closed out on the shot pretty much by just reaching forward with his right arm, and coerced Jones to leave the jumper well short.

The Devils’ two All-Americans, Williamson and Barrett, were asked when they realized they were going to be playing an entirely different basketball game than their norm.

“Before the game, obviously,” Zion told reporters.

“We didn’t overlook him,” Krzyzewski said.

“Yeah," Williamson added, "he’s 7-6.”

MORE: Tacko impacts Zion, but Duke wins tight March Madness battle

It eventually was determined there had been no violation, and Fall’s basket stood. It gave him 15 points for the game. The Devils got Jones an open 3-pointer, but that became one of seven he missed. Forward Javin DeLaurier did not give up on the rebound and swiped a pass away from Dayon Griffin. Freshman wing Cam Reddish made a 3-pointer to cut the deficit to a point. UCF did not crumble.

Taylor beat Williamson on a drive to the right and Williamson tried to cutely block his shot from behind. Instead, he fouled, his fourth of the game. Taylor made both free throws and the lead advanced to 3 points.

As the Devils spent 15 seconds aiming, Williamson decided he’d had enough. He was going to leave his imprint on this game, even if his career might end in the process. He fired a 3-pointer from the left wing. It missed. Fall was not nearby to grab the rebound, and DeLaurier seized it. The ball was returned to Williamson. Matched against Taylor, five inches shorter and 90 pounds lighter, Williamson attacked the lane and Taylor bravely attempted to draw a charge. There was no call, and Taylor became just a hurdle for Williamson to clear on the way to the rim.

There Zion met Tacko, at a point where only 90 inches of height or 45 inches of vertical leap can take a man. Williamson fought through contact from Fall and finger-rolled it into the rim. His free throw to tie missed, but Barrett grabbed the ball and — with no one taller than 6-11 to dissuade him — scored a layup to put Duke ahead.

MORE: 'Not like this': Duke players recall Aubrey Dawkins' would-be winner

Aubrey Dawkins’ attempt at a buzzer-beating created the tournament’s most dramatic moment — but not a victory for UCF.

“I was very impressed with the way that Duke, especially with freshmen, were able to withstand some of the shots we were making,” UCF coach Johnny Dawkins said. “It says a lot about their will. It says a lot about their overall mental toughness.”

Replay Video
Video by Yahoo! Sports

It is your prerogative to use this game as a warning — or, depending on your feeling about the Devils, a promise — something in Duke's operation is not quite right. That is also a risk, however, because every NCAA Tournament game tends to be its own entity. And that is particularly true with an anomaly such as Fall in the opposing lineup.

And what are we talking about? "Such as?"

There is no one like Fall in the tournament. There never has been anyone like him in the tournament. There wasn't anyone like him in this game for 15 minutes, and those were the minutes that allowed Duke to conjure a victory that otherwise seemed beyond their grasp, accessible only to the tall fellow reaching above everyone else.

Related slideshow: Best photos of the NCAA Tournament (Provided by imagn)

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