As 2020 comes to a close, The Chronicle's sports department takes a look back at the biggest stories of the year in Duke athletics. Each day, we will review a major game, event or storyline that helped shape the course of the year for the Blue Devils. Check out the rest of the top 10 here.
Coming in at No. 5: Justin Robinson slowly earns playing time as Duke men's basketball's 2019-20 season winds down, eventually finishing off his career with an electrifying performance against North Carolina.
For the vast majority of his five years in Durham, Justin Robinson didn't get many chances to take the court for Duke men’s basketball. At the end of last season, however, that all started to change.
As conference play winded down and the calendar shifted toward March, head coach Mike Krzyzewski began to tinker with his lineup. With star center Vernon Carey Jr. dealing with foul trouble often and other big men, such as Jack White and Javin DeLaurier, unable to contribute much offensively, Coach K looked to Robinson for a jolt.
The former walk-on took advantage of his surprising opportunity. Against Wake Forest Feb. 25, the Blue Devils had gotten off to a slow start—something that plagued them often during ACC play—and trailed 32-20 late in the first half. Then, Krzyzewski sent Robinson into the game, and things started to change.
While Duke eventually lost 113-101 in double overtime, Robinson proved that he belonged on the floor. The San Antonio native finished 3-for-6 from the field and rejected three shots, all the while totaling above 10 minutes against an ACC opponent for just the second time of his career. But this was only the beginning.
Less than a week later, Duke once again struggled out of the gates against an inferior opponent, this time N.C. State. And yet again, Robinson helped the Blue Devils turn it around, dropping 10 points and six rebounds in Duke’s 88-69 victory.
While those two performances were a story on their own, it was Robinson's showing in the final contest of the regular season that will go down in Duke lore. Facing off against North Carolina on Senior Night in Cameron Indoor Stadium, he notched his first career college start, and didn't disappoint.
On the Blue Devils’ third possession of the game, Tre Jones found Robinson open on the right wing. The graduate student let it fly from beyond the arc, banking in a three that sent the Cameron Crazies into a frenzy. Robinson kept it going a few minutes later, knocking down another triple off a Jordan Goldwire assist. Once again, the fans erupted. North Carolina cut the Blue Devil lead down to one with just over 15 minutes remaining in the game, but Robinson quelled the Tar Heel rally with another 3-pointer that bounced around the rim before dropping.
But even that one wouldn't go down as the moment of the night.
With the shot clock winding down and 4:29 left in the contest, Robinson received a cross-court pass from Jones, heaved up a prayer and fell on his back. The dagger three hit nothing but net, leading to deafening cheers that displayed just how popular Robinson was with the Blue Devil faithful.
By the end of the night, Duke prevailed 89-76, clinching a regular-season sweep of North Carolina. Robinson finished with career highs across the board: 25 minutes, 13 points, six rebounds, three assists and four blocks.
In his postgame speech as part of the Senior Night festivities, Robinson stuck to his humble nature, thanking his family, teammates and the raucous crowd. Showered with chants of “MVP,” Robinson described the win as “my favorite game I’ve been a part of.”
No one could have foreseen that moment being the final one of Duke’s season, as the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the ACC and NCAA tournaments just a few days later. But for one unforgettable night that was the culmination of two weeks of opportunities, Robinson stole the show and proved that those who constantly put in the hours will eventually be rewarded.
READ MORE on Justin Robinson's late-season impact:
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Max Rego is a Trinity senior and an associate sports editor for The Chronicle's 118th volume. He was previously sports managing editor for Volume 117.