SAN FRANCISCO—In March, these Blue Devils have made a habit of exciting finishes. With a ticket to the Final Four on the line, they left no doubt.
No. 2-seed Duke handled No. 4-seed Arkansas in Saturday's Elite Eight matchup, earning a trip to New Orleans with a 78-69 win. Led by a combined 46 points from the trio of Paolo Banchero, Mark Williams and AJ Griffin and a stirring first-half effort, the Blue Devils kept both their season and head coach Mike Krzyzewski’s career alive in dominant fashion and moved one step closer to a storybook finish on college basketball’s biggest stage.
“They did that,” Krzyzewski said after the game. “They did it for us, and enough about doing it for the old man here. We're not going to do it unless we all own it, and we all owned this. We all owned this moment together. That's what we're playing for.”
“Let’s go to New Orleans,” he added.
Duke led for the vast majority of the first half, keeping the Razorbacks at an arm’s length but struggling to pull away from its persistent opponent. That changed in a flash with the clock running out in the first frame, as the Blue Devils stretched a four-point lead to a 12-point halftime advantage in a breakneck final sequence highlighted by freshman guard Trevor Keels’ transition 3-pointer at the buzzer.
You didn’t have to see Keels’ shot go in, or even the scoreboard, to know: the Blue Devils had just broken this one open, and soon enough, would be cutting down the nets in San Francisco.
“They've been beautiful. They've been sensational. And they were really good,” Krzyzewski said. “I loved them before, but now I respect them so much, how much they've done.”
For as decisive as the end of the first half may have felt, the Razorbacks came out in the second half with a certain fire, pushing the pace to cut Duke’s lead to 53-48 and force a timeout. But once again, the Blue Devils withstood their opponent’s best, answering with a speedy 10-0 run to take their biggest lead of the game at 63-48. Junior wing Wendell Moore Jr. nailed the inside jumper for the 15-point lead, and Arkansas head coach Eric Musselman practically sprinted onto the court to call timeout.
Despite its best efforts, Arkansas never recovered. Griffin’s corner triple restored Duke’s 15-point lead after another mini Razorback run, and with foul trouble becoming a factor for the underdogs, the Blue Devils only tightened their hold on the game.
“At that timeout, our guys really got organized offensively,” Krzyzewski said. “We scored on four or five straight. We hit on a set that gave us some good looks, got the ball to Paolo, and then reversed it after a couple to AJ and changing the defense helped. From then on we just had control over the game.”
It was another slow opening for Duke, which committed turnovers on its first two possessions before breaking through on a layup by resurgent sophomore point guard Jeremy Roach. Still, the Blue Devils absorbed the Razorbacks’ first punch, staying within a possession before Williams came alive, going on a personal 6-0 run before the rare big-man steal-and-slam to put Duke up 14-11.
Duke’s early run to capture the lead was fueled not by 3-point shooting—the Blue Devils didn’t attempt their first triple until the 7:31 mark of the first half—but by offensive rebounding and a dominant interior presence. Every one of Duke’s first 16 points came in the paint, with Williams paving the way for the Blue Devils.
“I mean, all these guys played well, but Mark really was the difference-maker for us today,” Krzyzewski said.
Banchero, after not attempting a shot for nearly eight minutes to start the game, emerged toward the midway point of the first half, earning multiple trips to the line and running up Arkansas’ foul tally in a hurry. The shots didn’t fall for Banchero early—Duke’s premier talent finally connected from the field late in the first half—but in a favorable matchup with size on his side, he finally broke through before the break: Not long after connecting on a high-difficulty elbow jumper to extend Duke’s lead, Banchero stepped into a three from the top of the arc and buried it. Somehow, someway, the future NBA lottery pick nearly ended the half as Duke’s leading scorer with nine points in what appeared to be a quiet performance to the naked eye.
As the first half continued and the Blue Devils threatened to expand their sizeable lead even further—they led 22-14 with 10 minutes left until the break—6-foot-10 Arkansas sophomore Jaylin Williams took matters into his own hands, drawing a pair of charges and pouring in seven quick points to bring the Razorbacks within three. If not for his efforts, Duke might have run away with things even earlier.
Arkansas’ defensive anchor could only do so much as the game slipped away from his team, but he did provide a signature moment midway through the second half with a ferocious two-handed slam over Mark Williams.
Not enough can be said about the late-season play of Roach, who was brilliant once again in the first half Saturday. While the sophomore guard has made a habit out of big second halves in recent games, Roach provided his usual steady hand and more for the Blue Devils in the first 20 minutes, contributing heavily to his team’s 12-point halftime lead with seven points of his own. With Arkansas threatening to cut into Duke’s lead late in the period, Roach provided some timely dribble penetration for a tough bucket, plus the foul, to put the Blue Devils ahead 31-24.
“Definitely high emotions,” said Roach of his team’s accomplishment. “Obviously, last year didn't go as we planned it, but this year we came back hungry. I think just getting to this point, all the hard work has paid off since June, since obviously last year too, and it's just paid off. I'm very happy for that.”
With the win, Krzyzewski not only kept his career alive, but reached a historic milestone, surpassing John Wooden for the most Final Four appearances in the history of the sport. Saturday’s win sends Krzyzewski to the national semifinals for a record 13th time, with those trips spanning nearly 40 years—the first appearance came all the way back in 1986.
Duke now awaits the result of Sunday’s matchup between No. 8-seed North Carolina and No. 15-seed St. Peter’s, with the winner advancing to face the Blue Devils in New Orleans. The Tar Heels, of course, are the Blue Devils’ fiercest rivals, while the Peacocks’ historic run through the East Region has been the story of March so far.
“You know what, it's going to be an honor for us to go against whoever is the regional champion of that region,” Krzyzewski said about the possibility of facing North Carolina. “And there's no greater day in college basketball than when those four regional champions, four champions, get under one, in one arena and play. It's the greatest day for college basketball, and we're honored to be a part of it."
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Jonathan Levitan is a Trinity senior and was previously sports editor of The Chronicle's 118th volume.