SAN FRANCISCO—After cutting down the nets, after being named the Most Outstanding Player of the West Region, after leading his team to their coach’s historic 13th Final Four, freshman phenom Paolo Banchero sat down at the podium to tell a story.
“My mom won a state championship as a coach, and she got to go up on the ladder and cut the net, and I remember her swinging the net around and I always wanted to do that,” he said. “Then I won state in high school, and they lowered the hoop to cut the net. They didn't bring the ladder, and so it kind of ruined the moment a little bit. So when I got the ladder, I made sure I looked up there and tell my mom, make sure you get this on video.”
As his mother, presumably, videoed a personal dream of Banchero’s, though, she also captured the Blue Devils inking their chapter in the story of college basketball. In defeating Arkansas 78-69 at Chase Center in San Francisco, Duke became the latest West Regional Champion, with hopes of becoming a national champion coming more into focus with each passing day.
The Blue Devils put on one of their most complete performances against the Razorbacks, remaining comfortably in the driver’s seat for a vast majority of the game’s 40 minutes. Still, after entering the second half with a 12-point lead, the Blue Devils found that lead cut to five in no time at all and desperately needed a breakthrough.
Banchero was there to give it, driving inside with his signature strength and polished footwork for a layup on a play that he may recognize from watching his own mother’s tape.
“Drop steps, spin moves, all that stuff she had in her bag. So seeing her do that, you don't even realize that you're out there looking like your mom,” he said just a day before at Friday’s media availability.
Banchero obviously carries his mother with him in every game he plays, saying she’s his “biggest basketball influence,” so to tell the story of these Blue Devils, led triumphantly by their star freshman, you have to tell the story of Banchero and his mother.
But that story is one of many that, together, make up the saga of Duke.
After the game, head coach Mike Krzyzewski reflected on what it meant to pass the late UCLA head coach John Wooden for most Final Four appearances by a coach in NCAA history, saying, “[The regional championship] really is the biggest game a college coach has to coach, because it gets you into the promised land.”
For a man who has coached five national championships and will have coached 13 Final Fours, it may feel peculiar to single out the regional championship as a coach’s biggest game. However, for all moments of glory that have come in that final tournament weekend—the rings, the defeats and redemptions—it's the regional championship that opens the book.
Maybe, then, it’s fitting that Duke, in a game whose meaning could transcend that of almost any other, played a game best characterized by the little things. After all, in the story of these Blue Devils, this is still the exposition.
See, after a hairy first five minutes against Arkansas, the game was never close, but out of the gate, it looked like the Razorbacks could control the flow of the game and force Duke to play from behind like it had to against Texas Tech just days earlier.
However, down three after four minutes, sophomore center Mark Williams became the hero in one of the Blue Devils’ most pivotal stretches of the tournament. Swatting a crucial shot to prevent the Razorbacks from going up 11-6 through just five minutes of play, Williams made it back to the other end of the court to collect a quick pass from Wendell Moore Jr., and bank in a hook shot. Then, 31 seconds after that, he dropped in two second-chance layups on back-to-back possessions before scooping up a Razorback turnover for a fastbreak.
In two minutes and 10 seconds, Williams changed the game, arguably one of the program’s most important ever, for Duke and wrote his name down next to those already etched into the stone tablets of Blue Devil basketball.
“Look, he was the player,” Krzyzewski said. “I mean, all these guys played well, but Mark really was the difference-maker for us today.”
For Williams, this wasn’t inevitable. Last season, the Virginia Beach, Va., native was in and out of the lineup, struggling to find his place on an underperforming roster. Then, just when it looked like he may be breaking out, the Blue Devils had to forfeit the ACC tournament due to positive COVID tests within the program and failed to make the NCAA tournament for the first time in over 20 years.
A year later, as one of the most important players on a team vying for a national championship, you have to tell the story of Williams’ personal struggles to tell the story of a historic Duke team.
Similarly, before Moore, a junior captain, could be the ever reliable facilitator or hit the clutch free throws down the stretch of a close Sweet 16 matchup, he had to be the unproven underclassman waiting for his turn in the spotlight. And that made his final arrival at “the promised land” all the more sweet.
“For me it means everything…it's been a three-year wait. You come to Duke looking to get to moments like this, and unfortunately for me those first two years, that moment was taken away. So to be able to do it with these guys right here, I wouldn't want it any other way,” Moore said afterwards.
In a week, we’ll know what this Duke team will be remembered for, and there is dramatic potential Hollywood’s most creative minds couldn’t dream of. Saturday, Duke legend Grant Hill watched from the booth as his former team finally got revenge for the 1994 national championship loss to Arkansas he played in, and next weekend, as their last stop before a potential championship appearance, they could play their biggest rival for the first time ever in the tournament.
These epic possibilities will be what stamps Duke in the college basketball history book as it pursues the looming fairytale ending to Krzyzewski’s final season. However, the Blue Devils are not quite there yet. Moore said it himself, proclaiming, “The job’s not finished,” after the win.
Now, though, with a decisive and distinctly Duke regional championship in the rearview, we do know what this season is defined by, and it's the little stories. The Blue Devils are still writing their story, and as they do, they carry with them all the little stories that got them to this point.
Get The Chronicle straight to your inbox
Signup for our weekly newsletter. Cancel at any time.
Sasha Richie is a Trinity senior and a sports managing editor of The Chronicle's 118th volume.