SAN FRANCISCO—Catch your breath yet?
Duke found itself in familiar territory Thursday night, trailing late in the NCAA tournament—this time to No. 3-seed Texas Tech—and looking at the very real possibility of elimination.
For the second straight game, though, the Blue Devils took that challenge in stride, once again defying the gravity of head coach Mike Krzyzewski’s last season in thrilling fashion to keep their March run alive. That pressure keeps building and will only continue to grow in the coming days, but in passing Thursday’s test in the Sweet 16, this Duke team proved a great deal about itself. While most may just be waiting for the final chapter of Krzyzewski’s storied career to come to an end, the Blue Devils have the ultimate end goal in sight.
They clearly believe that they can accomplish that goal. Maybe, it’s time for everybody else to start believing it, too.
Sitting beside his players at the podium immediately following the win, you could tell that Krzyzewski believes it wholeheartedly.
“Boy, my guys are really doing a great job,” Krzyzewski said. “They're really doing a great job, and we beat guys who were doing a great job on the other team.”
It took every bit of that effort for Duke, which trailed at the break and well into the second half, to get past the Red Raiders and into Saturday’s regional final. After shooting 36.7% and registering just 29 points in the first frame, the Blue Devils came out firing to start the latter 20 minutes, but so did Texas Tech. Even as they clawed back into it, the Blue Devils needed stops to take control.
To do so, Krzyzewski and his staff made the surprising decision to go to a zone defense, and after a rough first few possessions in that scheme, the change paid dividends. The Red Raiders couldn’t connect on open looks, and Duke surged ahead to set up the game’s exciting final stretch.
“It kept out the amount of physicality because they were wearing us down,” Krzyzewski said about his team’s zone defense. “So the zone gave us a chance to kind of dance around the ring a little bit instead of being in a corner.”
But it was Duke’s late switch away from the zone that proved the defining decision in Thursday night’s win. With the two sides going blow for blow in the final few minutes, Krzyzewski heeded the advice of his players, who asked to go back to man defense with the game on the line. “They were playing so well,” Krzyzewski said. “I figured I would listen to them.”
“It was like a Catholic boys' choir. It was a chorus,” Krzyzewski said of his players’ request. “They all said it. They all said it, and they said it with enthusiasm. ‘We want to do this. We want to go man.’”
Simply put, that scheme change worked as well as the one that preceded it, and Duke held on for the win. On the team’s biggest stage yet, it was the players—not their Hall of Fame coach—who decided how they would reach the finish line.
Let that sink in for a moment. Krzyzewski, in pursuit of his 100th NCAA tournament win and in danger of those few minutes of play being his very last, gave his team the green light to make a critical decision in a zero-sum game. That is a massive decision, but it proved to be his masterstroke of the night.
“With this team, they're so young and they're still growing. Whenever they can own something, they're going to do it better than if we just run it,” said Krzyzewski. “When they said that, I felt they're going to own it. They'll make it work, and that's probably more important than strategy during that time. So that's the way I looked at it.”
That one word—ownership—was at the heart of Duke’s gutsy win, and has been a driving force behind its run to the Elite Eight. That concept of ownership has been an important point of emphasis in Krzyzewski’s final go: for these Blue Devils to succeed, it could never be about him and his accomplishments, but about theirs.
At times—crushing late-season losses to North Carolina and Virginia Tech come to mind—Duke has outwardly struggled with that. But the Blue Devils took it to heart in Thursday’s win from top to bottom, with no two players embodying that notion more than sophomore point guard Jeremy Roach and freshman phenom Paolo Banchero.
Roach, often excellent in a far more understated way than his star teammates, has been Duke’s star of March so far. He looked every bit the part against the Red Raiders, breaking down the opposition’s esteemed defense with a consistent bevy of footwork and persistence.
Like in Sunday’s win against Michigan State, or against Syracuse in the ACC tournament or even against Gonzaga way back in November, Roach delivered when it mattered, plain and simple.
“He has always been able to step up in big moments, and so we trust him 100%,” Banchero said of his teammate. “We've trusted him the whole year. Gonzaga, he made big plays down the stretch. Every game he has stepped up in the clutch, so we trust Jeremy 100%.”
For Banchero, even Krzyzewski was in awe of the star freshman after the game, proclaiming “Holy mackerel!” in reference to his performance multiple times in an on-court postgame interview. Banchero paced Duke with 22 points and nailed 3-of-4 triples, combining with Roach to lead a jaw-dropping final sequence in which Duke made its last eight shots to pull away.
“Paolo did a couple of things tonight that he has never done in his life, and he did it instinctually,” Krzyzewski said. “He just wanted to win so badly, and it was so beautiful to see.”
Duke, for all of its imperfection this season, is not only one of the last eight teams standing but the highest-seeded team remaining on the left side of the bracket.
For so long, the dream of a championship run in Krzyzewski’s last season has been just that: a dream. But now, with the immortalized coach’s players leading the charge, these Blue Devils have what it takes to make that dream a reality.
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Jonathan Levitan is a Trinity junior and sports editor of The Chronicle's 118th volume.