GREENVILLE, S.C.—With five minutes left in the game and Michigan State ahead 70-65, reality finally began to set in.
This really could be Mike Krzyzewski’s final contest as a head coach. It could all end right here.
There was still plenty of time remaining, of course, but we had seen this story before. The score remained tight all game, but down the stretch Duke was beginning to unravel. It happened against North Carolina in Krzyzewski’s infamous final game at Cameron, it happened against Virginia Tech in the ACC tournament final and it was happening here in the NCAA tournament.
You could feel the tension in Bon Secours Wellness Arena. It was a majority Duke crowd just four hours south of Durham, but the noise from the Spartan minority started to dominate. Even when the Blue Devils were on defense, a sense of nervousness took over rather than the typical jumping and screaming from the Duke contingent. The Blue Devils were in a hole, and a lot of people probably didn’t think they had it in them to dig themselves out.
Well, they answered the bell.
Duke went on a 20-6 run to end the game, finally playing like the team everyone knows it can be—including Krzyzewski.
“I thought when we got down—we were young for a while there, and I was wondering if we were going to stay young…. But my guys were so tough in those last six minutes of the game…. I'm incredibly proud of my guys,” Krzyzewski said in an emotional press conference, visibly tearing up along the way while turning to his players. “This is—you guys were terrific, man. I'm really proud to be your coach.”
Just calling those final five minutes a 20-6 run, however, ignores everything about why those minutes were so important, and why Krzyzewski was tearing up postgame. In the “Moments of Madness” video I referenced in my column last week, Kryzewski calls the NCAA tournament “a tournament of moments.”
“All these games mean something,” he goes on. “You become 0-0, and now who are you? Who are you for this moment?”
In that column, I said we were about to answer those very questions. So much of college basketball—and really sports in general—is about being ready for that moment your team needs you. It’s about not being afraid of the moment, or letting it overwhelm you, and instead facing it head-on. It’s about performing in that moment and making it a memorable one, a moment that’ll grace highlight videos—such as the aforementioned “Moments of Madness” video—for years to come.
And on Sunday, that’s exactly what these Blue Devils did. It wasn’t just a 20-6 run to close out the game. It was a 20-6 run filled with a series of moments in which Duke’s young stars stepped up and made plays, a series of moments that the Blue Devils turned into highlights that very well could end up going down in history.
Down 72-69 with 3:26 remaining, Trevor Keels pulled up from the top of the key. He hadn’t hit a three in four games, but it didn’t matter. Splash.
A minute later, Michigan State guard AJ Hoggard drove inside with a chance to extend the Spartans’ lead to three. But Mark Williams swatted the layup attempt and then snatched the rebound himself. He passed the ball off to Paolo Banchero, who took it coast to coast and laid it in off a swift euro-step to give Duke a slim 75-74 edge.
But perhaps the biggest moment, the one that’ll really get remembered, came with just over a minute remaining. With the Blue Devils still up just a point and the shot clock winding down, Wendell Moore Jr. passed cross-court to Jeremy Roach. The sophomore point guard has had an up-and-down year shooting the basketball, but in that moment it didn’t matter—he calmly pulled up from deep. Nothing but net.
CBS Sports' Seth Davis said the shot brought back memories of Bobby Hurley’s three against UNLV in 1991. I personally thought it was reminiscent of Tyus Jones throughout the entirety of the Blue Devils' 2014-15 championship season. In any case, Roach stepped up in the moment Duke needed him to, and the Blue Devils came out with the win. On the ensuing Michigan State possession, Moore came up with the steal—another key moment—and hit two free throws to ice it.
However, it’s just one win.
Stepping up in big moments is how you win an NCAA tournament game. But like Krzyzewski said Friday, “in order to win something big, you gotta win NCAA games.”
There were some great moments from down the stretch of Sunday’s win, but if Keels, Williams, Banchero, Roach, Moore and company want them to become moments that will be remembered forever—moments that can make their way to NCAA tournament highlight videos like the one in the Duke Basketball Museum & Hall of Fame—they have to repeat the feat.
The Blue Devils have proven this year that they have what it takes to step up to the moment. They did it in November against Kentucky and Gonzaga, and—while a lot of people didn’t think they had it in them anymore—they did it again against Michigan State.
But now comes the tough part—doing it multiple times in a row, against the best teams in the country and under the brightest lights the sport has to offer. I said last week that we were about to find out what this team is truly made of. This past week, we found out a lot.
This upcoming week, though, we’re about to learn even more.
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