DURHAM, N.C. (AP) — Andre Dawkins could be preparing for the prom.
Instead, he’s having the time of his life in another kind of big dance.
The 18-year-old finished high school early to get a jump start at Duke. After playing the season with a heavy heart, he’s hoping to continue providing an offensive spark off the bench in the Final Four.
“It’s been a lot of fun, a long journey for the whole season,” Dawkins said. “But this is what we looked forward to from Day 1.”
He hit two clutch 3-pointers in the South Regional final victory against Baylor and will be ready if his number is called when the Blue Devils (33-5) play West Virginia (31-6) on Saturday night in Indianapolis.
“I don’t really know if it has hit me yet,” Dawkins said. “Maybe walking onto the court at (Houston’s Reliant Stadium) and just seeing all those seats. It was kind of like, ‘Wow, this is the big time right here.'”
The teenager’s trip to the Final Four has capped a tumultuous, emotion-filled season for the freshman, who might be the best pure shooter on Duke’s roster.
After not taking a shot in a combined seven minutes in his previous two NCAA tournament games, he knocked down two 3s against Baylor — including one in the final minute of the first half that swung momentum back to the Blue Devils and helped propel them to their first Final Four since 2004.
“Andre has guts,” teammate Jon Scheyer said. “He comes in games and he’s confident, and it’s a big lift.”
Of course, having a certain level of courage comes in handy when you’re trying to enroll at Duke early.
Dawkins had attended four years of high school in Virginia — one year of public school before transferring to Atlantic Shores Christian School and was classified as a freshman again. He found out that needed one English class for NCAA eligibility, so he passed that class over the summer and pursued early admission to Duke.
“We were just saying, ‘Wow, last year we were in the Metro (high school) Conference,'” said his father, also named Andre Dawkins. “This year, you’re in the Final Four. That is crazy. We were just thinking how much a blessing that it is to be at that point, and how things can change for you.”
The elder Dawkins said his son’s decision hit home this week during the lead-up to the McDonald’s All-America Game in Columbus, Ohio.
“I said, ‘Do you miss being in that?'” the senior Dawkins asked his son. “He said, ‘Well, I think I’m doing something that’s a little bit exciting, too.'”
Exciting, yes, but also at times uncertain.
Dawkins’ minutes vacillated during the season. He played at least 12 minutes in 14 of his first 17 games, and had all six of his double-figure scoring games during that stretch. But once the Blue Devils entered the heart of the Atlantic Coast Conference season, he played more than 12 minutes only four times and didn’t score more than seven points in any of those games.
Then he rediscovered his shot against the Bears, and may have earned himself some additional time on the court.
“I just attribute (that shooting) to just staying ready and working on it in practice. … Coach told me to shoot if I’m open, so that’s what I did,” Dawkins said. “I’m just trying to play my part. When coach is calling me I’m always ready to go in and do whatever they need me to do.”
Tragedy made his first season exponentially more difficult than for most freshmen.
His older sister Lacey was riding to Durham for the Blue Devils’ game against St. John’s on Dec. 7 when she was killed in a three-vehicle accident in southern West Virginia. Their father said Andre, a laid-back and quiet teenager, keeps a photograph of his sister on his cell phone and had trouble opening up about her death, preferring to keep himself involved with basketball and academics.
It was comforting, though, that coach Mike Krzyzewski and Duke athletic director Kevin White were among those who attended the funeral and helped make the Blue Devils feel even more like an extended family for him.
“There was a lot of love coming from everywhere,” the elder Dawkins said.
Said his son: “I just had great family support and all my teammates and my coaches being there for me the entire time. If there was anything I needed, wanting to talk to me, it was just a good feeling, I think that’s one of the main reasons I was able to get through it as well as I did.”
When he rejoined the team after her funeral, he scored 16 emotional points against Gardner-Webb and has kept her memory alive through the ups and downs of the season.
“It’s still something he thinks about,” Dawkins’ father said. “It’s something he wants to cherish and just continue to move on and appreciate the time that they had together.”