WASHINGTON—Destiny didn't smile on Duke for the third straight time, as the Blue Devils couldn't recreate their late magic on their biggest stage of the season.
In a clash of titans that lived up to its billing, Kenny Goins’ go-ahead 3-pointer with 34.3 seconds left lifted No. 2 seed Michigan State to a 68-67 win against top-seeded Duke in the Elite Eight at Capital One Arena. The Blue Devils fell one win short of the Final Four for the second straight season after a late triple in regulation also led to their downfall last year against Kansas.
Zion Williamson carried Duke through the second half in what was certainly his last game as a Blue Devil, but the Spartans' veterans made enough plays down the stretch to make the Final Four for the first time in their careers.
“This team put themselves in a position to go for it and had a chance for it. And so it's disappointing that they didn't get there, but I'm proud of them,” head coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “I feel bad for them. They're deserving of special things and they have had a special year. But this not going to the Final Four is obviously a huge disappointment.”
Duke was in a familiar position in the last minute, leading by one but needing a defensive stop after R.J. Barrett couldn't convert on a drive into the lane. Friendly rolls went the Blue Devils’ way in their previous two games, but Goins’ shot didn’t need to rely on the rim and swished straight through the net. The graduate-student forward got open when Williamson and Tre Jones miscommunicated on a switch, and Williamson’s closeout was too little, too late.
Duke (32-6) got an offensive rebound on a scramble in the corner after a missed 3-pointer by Barrett, and the freshman drove and got fouled to earn two potential game-tying free throws with 5.2 seconds left. But the first shot bounced off the back of the rim, and though he tried to miss the second one, it bounced high off the rim and in.
The Blue Devils had too many fouls to give to force Michigan State (32-6) to the line and get the ball back, and Cassius Winston—who led his team with 20 points and 10 assists—dribbled the last few seconds out.
“He’s a tough guard,” Jones said. “He has been able to run their team really well and he has done it extremely well all year. He’s definitely one of the toughest guards I’ve gone against.”
With Duke trailing 63-59 in the last four minutes, it went on a 7-0 run to get to the doorstep of the Final Four in Minneapolis. Junior captain DeLaurier calmly finished a layup, sealing his first career double-double, and Barrett gave the Blue Devils the lead with a top-of-the-key triple.
A driving dunk by Williamson handed Duke a three-point advantage and electrified the crowd, but Xavier Tillman—who had 19 points and matched up with Williamson fearlessly—responded with a bucket for the Spartans to set up the dramatic final minute.
“He played really physical. On offense, he was setting great screens and slipping at the perfect times,” Williamson said. “He played a very high IQ game.”
Facing a four-point deficit at halftime, the Blue Devils' best player pulled them back into the game by himself. Williamson got three offensive rebounds in the first two minutes of the second half and scored on five straight possessions, bullying Michigan State's forwards in the paint and even stepping out to knock down a 3-pointer.
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“That was just me adjusting to the game,” Williamson said. “My teammates were telling me if I got it, to go, and I was going. I just tried to bring energy.”
Jones gave Duke its first lead of the half with a nifty reverse layup in transition, and the two squads traded heavyweight punches the rest of the game.
After trailing for the first 12 minutes, the Blue Devils finally started clicking on both ends with a 12-0 run to take a 30-21 lead, their largest cushion at any point in the last three games. Cam Reddish and Barrett knocked down 3-pointers on back-to-back possessions to finish the run.
The momentum immediately shifted when Barrett threw a post entry pass too low for Williamson, who committed his second foul on an ill-advised reach for the ball 90 feet from the Spartans' basket.
When Williamson left the floor, Winston got into the paint with ease for two straight buckets. Although Williamson reentered the game after the under-4 media timeout, his presence didn't stem the tide.
Winston scored or assisted on every point of the Spartans' 13-0 run to close the half and put Duke on its heels heading into the locker room. The Blue Devils committed five turnovers and didn't score a point in the last five minutes of the half—they had 17 giveaways in the game, compared to just seven for Michigan State.
“Cassius Winston really just took over,” Barrett said. “Every time they got down, he just came up with a huge play. 20 and 10, that’s incredible. Their defense was amazing. They’re a great team and they played great today.”
Duke’s 32 wins this year are its most since the 2014-15 national championship season, and the Blue Devils had an impressive peak with their run to the ACC championship two weeks ago, but they will still go home without earning the ultimate prize.
“It hurts more than any other loss I’ve ever had in my life. This team was just so special,” DeLaurier said. “It’s just hard when you know you have the potential to do something and you come so close, and you don’t do it.”