At the team’s first practice Sept. 28, head coach Mike Krzyzewski said his last game hadn’t crossed his mind yet.
“I’m going to live in the moment,” he said.
It’s a mantra he’s repeated often this season, shirking the sentimental, if not burdensome, implications of “last” for focus on the team.
But as the team advances to the second weekend of March Madness, staring down the country’s most elite basketball talent in every possible single-elimination contest, that last day could now come at any time.
In the lead up to the tournament, the Blue Devils suffered some heartbreaking losses, most notably in Krzyzewski’s final game at home in Cameron Indoor Stadium against rival North Carolina, and again in the ACC championship against Virginia Tech.
Those games created a fire from the already smoldering embers of other Duke losses, for all its talent, couldn’t close out big games. Come tournament time, the question became whether the Blue Devils could put out that fire.
In a fierce second-round matchup Sunday night against Michigan State, one brimming with narratives—Tom Izzo vs. Krzyzewski, redemption for the 2019 Elite Eight, the Blue Devils’ first real challenge in the tournament—Duke did, if just for the night.
The Blue Devils played arguably their best basketball of the season in the final five minutes of the game, overcoming a five-point deficit to ultimately win 85-76 as every player on the court stepped up to the plate when they needed to and knocked it out of the park. For a team with legitimate championship aspirations, it was a heartening display of the je ne sais quoi that could lead them to the checkered flag, something that was perhaps absent before then.
What exactly was missing though? After the game, freshman phenom Paolo Banchero, who led the team in scoring with 19 points, seven rebounds and four assists, said that the win came down to those final minutes.
“We can either lay down, or we can turn it up,” he said. “That's really all it was, man. Just fighting, like you said, having heart. And just trusting each other really.”
Krzyzewski put it a little differently.
“They're becoming men.”
All season, the hall-of-fame coach has emphasized the youth of this group, and while he still reminded press conference attendees of just how young the Blue Devils are, the uncharacteristic assertion of their maturity represented a change in the wind of this Duke team.
Regardless of how the rest of the season plays out, the win against Michigan State will stand as the Blue Devils flipping the page to the final chapter of their Bildungsroman.
This Duke team has its own story to tell irrespective of this season’s unique significance, but it would be disingenuous to omit the dimension added to every game by Krzyzewski’s impending departure.
Krzyzewski himself has positioned the two as opposites, mutually exclusive. This season is either about the team or about him, and he wants it to be about the team. However, as the season has progressed, it’s clear that it can be both.
At the team’s media availability before the second round, junior captain Wendell Moore Jr., put it best.
“Every game we play has been Coach's last something, so we've kind of been able to adapt to it. We view it as kind of motivation for us because we say we always want to go out and do it for Coach, send him out on a high note. But at the same time, this is our season as well, too.
"Coach will tell you guys…he doesn't like the spotlight on him like that. He wants it to be about us. So we're all in this together. We're going to make it about us and Coach.”
As the last few seconds fell off the game clock, the camera panned to a beaming Krzyzewski with a glint of tears in his eyes. Later, getting choked up, he told his guys, “I’m really proud to be your coach.”
Krzyzewski has rarely displayed the sort of authentic sentimentality this season that he did then, but the weight of the moment was evidently too heavy not to.
Still, as the program, from head to toe, blossomed into its full potential in those fateful minutes in Greenville, S.C., letting the weight settle onto its shoulders instead of leaving it behind was a sign of strength.
With 16 seconds till the final buzzer and Duke up five, Moore stood in front of the basket for two free throws. Closing his eyes briefly and taking a deep breath, he sank both.
“I didn't see anything but me and the bucket…I just feel like I'm the only one in there. No matter how much noise they were making, I honestly didn't hear one thing. Just stepped up to the line and knocked them down.”
Those makes all but put away the game as Duke now had a three-possession cushion. More philosophically, though, Moore’s trip to the line mirrored the Blue Devils’ entire game. He showed maturity, composure, fortitude, made all the more meaningful by the significance of the game. As he, the team and Krzyzewski showed throughout the night, letting yourself feel the weight of the moment allows you to rise to the moment.
With a minimum of one and a maximum of four more games left in both the tournament and Krzyzewski’s career, there are still many moments left for the Blue Devils to rise to, but in conquering the Spartans they showed that they’re ready to do just that.
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Sasha Richie is a Trinity senior and a sports managing editor of The Chronicle's 118th volume.