NEW YORK—Even with the No. 5 seed Blue Devils trailing 56-48 with 11:25 left in the ACC championship game after two Grayson Allen turnovers, Duke's players and coaches looked calm as could be.
The Blue Devils had been in the same spot Thursday and Friday, and a third straight come-from-behind win seemed inevitable.
And luckily for Duke, it was able to muster a gritty comeback in a matter of minutes, riding a 15-4 stretch and an impeccable finish from swingman Jayson Tatum to its first ACC title since 2011.
A Tatum free throw with 2:02 remaining broke a 65-65 tie, then the freshman blocked a shot and went coast to coast for a layup to make it a three-point game with 1:35 left. After a pair of Matt Farrell free throws, Tatum found senior Matt Jones on the right wing for a huge 3-pointer—Jones' first triple of the ACC tournament—to stretch the lead to four.
Tatum then threw down an emphatic slam through contact with 25.4 seconds left to make it a five-point game and hit the ensuing free throw to seal the first conference tournament title won with four wins in four days with a 75-69 victory against third-seeded Notre Dame at the Barclays Center Saturday night.
“It didn’t click until we won that we actually did it. The entire week, we had the mindset that we wanted to be the first to ever do that,” Tatum said. “We wanted to overcome everything we’ve gone through this entire season. A lot of people counted us out when we were losing games or guys were hurt, but we just wanted to show the world that we’re still going to be a special team.”
The 22nd-ranked Fighting Irish (25-9) looked like the fresher team after intermission, quickly overcoming their four-point halftime deficit to tie the game at 38, then going ahead for the first time on a Rex Pflueger triple with 17:12 remaining. Although the No. 14 Blue Devils (27-8) answered a few Notre Dame buckets to stay within one possession, the Fighting Irish pushed the lead to seven when V.J. Beachem put back a Bonzie Colson miss with 12:34 left in the game.
Notre Dame hit five of its first seven shots and outscored Duke 19-8 to start the second half, taking advantage of five Duke turnovers to get easy baskets, with Colson pouring in 29 points.
After a pair of Allen turnovers, it looked like things were in danger of going off the rails for the Blue Devils for the third straight day.
Yet looking at Duke’s players on the court, you would never have known it.
“During timeouts, the looks on guys' faces were the looks of champions, even when we were losing,” graduate student Amile Jefferson said. “So it made me and Matt's job easy to lead guys who want to be led, to lead guys who are fighters and to have players like Tatum and Luke Kennard, who are just dynamic scorers and always tough players.”
Jefferson would not let his team go down without a fight, putting in back-to-back hoops inside to pull Duke within four with 9:46 remaining in the contest. Frank Jackson responded to a Colson turn-around moments later with a corner triple to quickly make it a three-point game.
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The Blue Devils then set up the exciting finish, with Tatum and Jefferson scoring inside to put Duke back in front 59-58 following a 7-0 spurt.
Jackson added another important second-half hoop in response to a Farrell jumper, then Kennard hit a mid-range elbow shot to give Duke a three-point edge with 4:55 left. The ACC tournament MVP finished with 16 points as he and Tatum became the highest-scoring duo in conference tournament history.
“I think there should have been co-MVPs,” said Blue Devil head coach Mike Krzyzewski, who won his record-setting 14th ACC tournament title. “You couldn't split a hair on them…. They were remarkable.”
Notre Dame would not let Duke go ahead by more than one possession, however, with Beachem free throws and a game-tying Colson triple from the top of the key with 2:27 remaining bringing the Fighting Irish faithful to their feet.
But Tatum would not let his team fall behind late, carrying the team down the stretch to cap a surreal four-game sequence and finishing with 19 points and eight rebounds. His pass to Jones set up the shot of the tournament by the Blue Devil co-captain, who has been heavily criticized by fans all year for his inconsistent shooting.
“Me and Amile, everything we've been through, we told each other we weren't going back to the dorm without [this championship],” Jones said. "So that was the big motivation for us at least, and we just made that message known to all the other guys.”
“Matt, no matter if he misses 100 shots, we always think he’s going to make the next one,” Tatum said. “So when I drove, he called my name and as soon as I passed it to him, I knew it was a bucket.”
Almost 50 seconds earlier, the St. Louis native had made yet another signature play by stuffing Steve Vasturia at one end and taking the ball the length of the floor himself to make it a three-point game.
“How the hell did you do that?” Krzyzewski said of his reaction to the play. “It gave everyone energy, like, ‘Somebody on our team could move that fast right now.’”
Duke was in control to start the game, never trailing in the first half by jumping out to an 8-2 lead and going ahead by nine points two different times. But Colson never let his team fall behind by double figures, closing the half strong to give Notre Dame a good chance heading into the second period.
Although the Fighting Irish looked ready to pull away, the Blue Devils reeled them in and finished strong yet again. Duke beat three top-25 opponents in a row on its way to the title, becoming the first No. 5 seed ever to win the conference tournament.
The Blue Devils will now await their NCAA tournament fate Sunday evening. The latest projections as of Saturday evening had Duke slotted as a No. 2 seed after its big week in New York.
“There were so many plays that turned the game around and sparked the game made by a bunch of our guys,” Jefferson said. “I'm just really proud to be on this team with this group of guys at this time where we're becoming pure.”