In his milestone win, head coach Mike Krzyzewski showed what makes him one of the best coaches the college game has ever seen.
It wasn't his knowing how to motivate his players or how to draw up the perfect play. It was his knowing when to step back and do nothing.
Facing a 13-point deficit midway through the second half against the one of the conference's worst teams, Duke's offense was sputtering and its defense lacking. And even though his 800th victory was at stake, Krzyzewski decided not to call a timeout, but just to let his players learn from the trying experience on their own.
"Sometimes the situation allows you in this league to make a team better by just allowing things to happen," he said. "Not that it's OK to lose, but 'You guys figure it out'.... During that time they were kind of wrestling with the game and they said, 'Okay, let's do this now.'"
And soon enough, as if a switch had been flipped, the Blue Devils woke up and stormed back. Suddenly, Duke started to perform like a top-10 team, despite the fact that N.C. State was playing perhaps its best game of the season. With improved defense and more accurate shooting, the Blue Devils managed to cut the Wolfpack's lead from 13 to five in just more than five minutes.
But N.C. State refused to go away, and seemed to have a response for every one of the Blue Devils' surges down the stretch. Hoping to complete the comeback and avoid losing its third straight ACC road game, Duke, as it has many times this season, looked to its leader DeMarcus Nelson. And the senior captain dutifully accepted the challenge.
During the game's frantic final minutes, Nelson scored 10 of the Blue Devils' final 17 points. Twice late in the game, he nailed key 3-pointers in the corner, even once deliberately stepping back when he realized his feet were inside the arc.
"Since I was wide open, I said to myself I might as well step back and hit the three," Nelson said. "It was just about taking our shots with confidence.... When your back is against the wall, like it was, our emphasis was just to leave it all out on the court and play loose, and those shots started to fall for us."
Just as big as his 3-point shooting was his performance at the free-throw line. Entering Saturday's tilt as a less-than 60-percent shooter from the charity stripe, Nelson knocked down eight of his nine attempts, including both tries with 1:01 left that were enough to win the game.
"All my teammates gave me the confidence to step to the line and take the shots. I was just thinking about my regular routine-saying the things I say to myself and giving the ball a chance."
"He's been the key guy for us," Krzyzewski said. "We would not have won today if not for DeMarcus."
The Blue Devils once again relied on their perimeter shooting, converting just 31 percent of their shots from inside the arc-far worse than their 46-percent conversion rate from downtown. Excluding Jon Scheyer's prayer of a three as time wound down to keep the ball from the Wolfpack as long as possible, Duke converted five of its last seven 3-pointers in the game's final seven minutes.
But the Blue Devils' superb performance in the contest's closing moments proved just barely enough, thanks to a little help from N.C. State. The Wolfpack converted all except one of its first 19 free-throw attempts, but sank only three of its last six in the game's final two and a half minutes.
"We had to get stops on defense and then offensively just attack them," Nelson said. "We tried to exploit their zone by driving the ball and getting to the basket or kicking out for three. We were able to do a little bit of both down the stretch, and we also knocked down our free throws."
After the game, Krzyzewski said his personal achievement made him a bit reminiscent, but that he had to continue focusing on this team moving forward right now. The win was surely special, but for the coach and teacher, the lesson his players learned was even more important.
"If we don't hit a shot, then we lose, but still the point would have been made-win or lose, that they finally took ownership of this game," Krzyzewski said. "Even if we had lost, it would have been a good thing."
With only two more contests before the start of the ACC Tournament and the NCAA Tournament after that, the players are only too eager to agree with their illustrious coach.
"We can learn a lot from this game," Scheyer said. "To still come out of this with the win is key for us.... I think we can grow from a win like this."
The Blue Devils' coach couldn't have put it any better himself.
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