Being the hero in Duke’s highly-anticipated home matchup against North Carolina couldn’t have even been in Justin Robinson’s wildest dreams as of two weeks ago.
Yet, Saturday night, Robinson was just that.
Robinson had played just 227 total minutes in his five years with the Blue Devils coming into Saturday’s matchup against the Tar Heels. But the graduate student saved his best for last in Cameron Indoor Stadium, invigorating the crowd and his teammates with 13 points and four blocks in his first, and perhaps only, career start. Behind Robinson’s early heroics, No. 12 Duke completed the season sweep against North Carolina with an 89-76 win.
Already having played the best game of his college career, Robinson fell to the ground while taking a contested triple with 4:27 remaining in the contest. The shot fell for Robinson’s fourth 3-pointer of the night, sending the crazed Cameron crowd into a blissful frenzy.
This was everything he could have dreamt of and more.
“I’m ecstatic," Robinson said. “It’s the best feeling. That’s a storybook ending to my life in Cameron.”
Two minutes into the contest, Robinson hoisted up a 3-pointer, banking in an admittedly ugly shot much to the delight of the crowd. A few minutes later, Robinson connected on another shot from beyond the arc, causing the arena to quake again.
Head coach Mike Krzyzewski tabbed Robinson as the only senior to start the second half, and Robinson would make a near immediate impact. The San Antonio, Texas native rejected a Garrison Brooks shot to start a fast break that resulted in a Vernon Carey Jr. dunk to put Duke (25-6, 15-5 in the ACC) up 44-36.
Robinson would benefit from another fortuitous bounce five minutes into the second period, making his third 3-pointer on a shot from the corner that bounced off the side of the rim and in, giving Duke a 47-43 advantage.
"Justin Robinson has been a godsend for us," Krzyzewski said. "He had his fingerprints on every aspect of the game tonight. Four blocks, but he helped change some shots, rebounds. We were able to execute down the stretch with him making a few assists."
With North Carolina (13-18, 6-14) breathing down Duke’s neck midway into the second half, Carey took charge. The freshman center made shots on three consecutive possessions, keeping the energized Tar Heels at arm’s length.
Robinson and Carey collaborated on one of the most pivotal plays of the game with just less than eight minutes left. Holding the ball at the top of the key, Robinson dropped in a teardrop pass to a cutting Carey. The younger Duke big converted on the layup and got fouled, the free throw extending the Blue Devil lead to 69-61.
Robinson’s 24 minutes are a career high, continuing his late-season breakout. He had played 14 and 15 minutes, respectively, against Wake Forest Feb. 25 and North Carolina State March 2 after not notching double-digit minutes in any prior contest this season.
Joining Robinson in the starting lineup were fellow seniors Javin DeLaurier and Jack White. The three played with an early fire that only somebody playing his last ever home game could.
DeLaurier caused the crowd to erupt with 12:23 remaining in the first half, grabbing an offensive rebound over multiple Tar Heels and making a bucket on a strong finish.
"When [Krzyzewski] told us we were going to start, he said,' especially defensively, we're all veterans, we know what we're supposed to be doing,'" Robinson said. "We know the gameplan and just to set our tone with the talk and the energy. And then just to play free. Have fun."
With the win, the Blue Devils finish the regular season in a three-way tie for second place in the ACC. However, Duke loses the head-to-head tiebreaker to Louisville and Virginia, meaning the Blue Devils will be the No. 4 seed in next week’s ACC tournament, opening play next Thursday at 2:30 p.m. in Greensboro, N.C.
As Duke heads into postseason play, there's a real possibility Robinson falls out of the Blue Devil rotation again. But what happened Saturday—a former walk-on starring in his last-ever home game—is a moment that will live on in Duke basketball lore.
"It's almost like a movie," Krzyzewski said.
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