WASHINGTON—For many on Duke's roster, the NCAA tournament will be the last time these Blue Devils play for each other, and Duke certainly played like it was its last day.
After Tre Jones missed the front end of a one-and-one with 29 seconds remaining, Virginia Tech had the ball down just two points, with the opportunity to take down Duke or send the game to overtime.
Ty Outlaw's potential game-winning 3-pointer clanked off the backboard with five seconds left and Ahmed Hill's open shot hit off the rim as the clock expired, and the top-seeded Blue Devils narrowly beat the fourth-seeded Hokies 75-73 in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament at Capital One Arena. Duke survived yet another nail-biter against Virginia Tech behind a massive 22-point performance from Jones and 18 points from R.J. Barrett.
“Now that it's March Madness, every game is kind of going to be like this, close, hard fought games,” Barrett said. “And we somehow find a way to keep winning at the end. And it's great. And we're not surprised by it, but we've just got to keep it up.”
With his team down four at the half, Barrett shook off an abysmal 1-for-6 opening period with a quick lay-in. Jones followed in turn with a step-back jumper to tie it.
Of course, the Hokies weren't about to make it easy for the Blue Devils.
Both teams traded baskets, with Barrett, Jones and star freshman Zion Williamson feeding the Duke engine to keep the Blue Devils afloat. For every drive and finish from Duke, the Hokies' Isaiah Wilkins, Justin Robinson and Hill were there to cut the Blue Devils down.
With Duke's lead reduced to two after Virginia Tech put together a run late in the game, Jones refused to give up an inch with a clutch corner three, eliciting shades of his older brother Tyus' run in the 2015 tournament. A massive Williamson slam immediately after gave Duke the seven-point advantage, and the Blue Devils left their foot on the gas.
However, the Hokies refused to give Duke (32-5) a moment to breathe.
After Duke's lead was cut to four, Jones fouled to send Robinson to the line, giving Duke just a two point lead with under 30 seconds left. Jones missed the front end of the one-and-one, and the Hokies took control of the final possession, setting the stage for Virginia Tech’s game defining final play.
“Tonight [Robinson] was back who he is, which is a great guard,” Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “But our guys have good foot movements. Our big guys did a good job. And then when we had to switch off, overall we did okay against Blackshear.... But they're difficult to defend, man. They're really a good team.”
As has been the case many times this season, the key to Duke's decisive run came out of the locker room, riding on the momentum of one of its freshmen standouts. When Duke last faced Virginia Tech, Barrett had to be the driver to carry the Blue Devils offense without Williamson. And where that furious comeback from the Canadian Blue Devil came up short, Barrett came through for his shot at redemption.
After grabbing a steal with the Hokies (26-9) up one, Barrett ran down the floor to lay it in to give the Blue Devils the lead. Duke turned up the defensive pressure and got the stop, which the Blue Devils took full reign of after Williamson dished to Jones for a corner three, his fourth of the night. And in a stadium split down the middle between Hokies and Blue Devils, the Apple Valley, Minn., native left the building shaking with a steal to an alley-oop to Williamson that elicited an emphatic floor slap from the Blue Devils.
“It was huge on momentum for us,” Jones said. “It started to go over my head, went right to it and I saw Zion streaking to the right side. That’s the best sight to see during the game and I put it up for him pretty high, and he was able to go up and get that for me.
“I’ve never thrown a pass that was too high for Zion. When you know he can do that, you never think something is too high for him.”
However, as Duke began to cool off, Virginia Tech took advantage of the slowing Blue Devil offense to keep the game alive. Robinson and Nickeil Alexander-Walker sparked a run that put Marques Bolden in foul trouble, cutting Duke's lead to five. However, a slip from Williamson helped build the Blue Devils' cushion.
The Blue Devils will go on to play No. 2 seed Michigan State Sunday in the Elite Eight with tipoff slated for 5:05 p.m., following the Midwest Regional final from Kansas City between No. 5 seed Auburn and second-seeded Kentucky.
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