With the end of 2017 quickly approaching, The Chronicle's sports department takes a look back at the biggest sports stories of the year. Each day, The Blue Zone will review a major game, event or storyline that helped shape the course of the year in Blue Devil athletics.
Coming in at No. 1 on the list: Duke's ACC tournament championship
Duke limped into the Barclays Center in New York a day earlier than expected in March after a disappointing regular season. The Blue Devils were a shell of the team that was a near-unanimous preseason No. 1 and had pundits suggesting they could go undefeated before the year started.
But for four days in Brooklyn, they put it all together in a magical run to their first ACC championship in six years.
All four games were nail-biters. No. 5 seed Duke could have seen its run come to an abrupt end against 12th-seeded Clemson after the Blue Devils did not earn one of the four double-byes to the quarterfinals. The Tigers pulled within one in the final three minutes before Luke Kennard took over to lead Duke to a 79-72 victory.
The Blue Devils' tournament certainly could have ended a day later against No. 4 seed Louisville, which was well-rested and started repeatedly beating Duke down the floor in transition as it built a 12-point lead. But the Blue Devils shifted to a 2-3 zone and the Cardinals went cold from the perimeter, as Kennard, Grayson Allen and Jayson Tatum led a comeback that put Duke on top 81-77.
"“Today was just joy,” head coach Mike Krzyzewski said after the game. “I had so much fun coaching our team today. I felt like a little kid, man.... They gave everything.”
Next up was the toughest test of all against top-seeded and eventual national champion North Carolina, and the Blue Devils fell into trouble early in the second half once again. But with Tar Heel point guard Joel Berry II watching from the bench with four fouls, Duke crawled back from a 13-point deficit with the help of Harry Giles' most effective performance of his lone year in Durham before leaving for the NBA.
The next night, the Blue Devils trailed by eight to Notre Dame in the championship game, a small margin compared to their previous comebacks. This time, Duke's veterans led the charge, as Amile Jefferson scored the first two buckets of the comeback and Matt Jones knocked down the biggest shot of the week with a 3-pointer in the final minute.
Tatum also played a starring role, blocking a shot and going coast-to-coast for a layup to put the Blue Devils in front by three with less than two minutes left. After that, he slammed home a two-handed dunk to put the nail in the coffin after Jones' triple.
Kennard was named the MVP of the tournament after the game.
"During timeouts, the looks on guys' faces were the looks of champions, even when we were losing,” Jefferson said after the championship. “So it made me and Matt's job easy to lead guys who want to be led, to lead guys who are fighters."
It was the first time a team had ever won four games in four days to be crowned ACC champions, and the quartet of close contests capped Duke's streak of 16 straight games decided by 10 or fewer points, its most in a row in almost 80 years.
“This week was another test of who we are as basketball players, who we are as people,” guard Frank Jackson said. “When times get hard, what do we do? I think with all the heart and fight we have, we rose to the occasion.”
The Blue Devils did not rise to the occasion a week later in the NCAA tournament, though their ACC title propelled them to a No. 2 seed. They were upset 88-81 in the Round of 32 by No. 7 seed South Carolina, which went on to represent the East Region in the Final Four.
READ MORE about Duke's run to the ACC championship:
A look at the rest of our top 10 countdown to date:
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