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Duke men’s basketball doesn’t have a specific closer, but maybe that’s a good thing

Duke's win against Miami in the ACC tournament semifinals came down to the final few minutes.
Duke's win against Miami in the ACC tournament semifinals came down to the final few minutes.

BROOKLYN, N.Y.—Duke scored six more points Friday night at Barclays Center against Miami than it did in its first matchup against the Hurricanes.

And that made all the difference.

This game, it was a collective team effort of late-game free-throw shooting that lifted Duke past Miami 80-76 and on to the championship game of the ACC tournament. The night before, it was two free throws from Wendell Moore Jr., a big finish through contact from Paolo Banchero and a buried three from Jeremy Roach that put Syracuse to bed. 

That’s just the way it has been all season. A new opportunity to finish a game, and a new Blue Devil steps in to get the job done. 

“This is a game where both teams are worthy of winning…. Everything was earned tonight, so I’m proud of my guys. My guys really played well,” head coach Mike Krzyzewski said after the Miami game. 

Duke’s last close game prior to the conference tournament came against Virginia, and AJ Griffin and Trevor Keels combined for seven points in the last 2:05 to avenge the Blue Devils’ previous home loss against the Cavaliers. 

Flip back further, to Duke’s last close contest prior to that victory against Virginia, and it was big man Mark Williams with the clutch dunk in the final seconds against Wake Forest that led to a win. 

It’s March now, and the teams that are going to be dancing in the NCAA tournament have nearly all found their identities. So as college basketball sits on the doorstep of Selection Sunday, Duke likely isn’t suddenly going to have one guy rise above the rest as the lone star and the only option in the final minutes.

But the fact that the DNA of this Duke team is that several players are capable of making big-time plays in crunch time is a crucial reason why this team has had success. The result has been a surplus of star performances from different players, something that typically pays off in March. 

“The main two [differences] in our observation is Jeremy Roach is playing really, really well right now and AJ Griffin is healthy and playing really well,” Miami head coach Jim Larrañaga said of the changes in this Duke team since the first matchup between the two programs in January. 

The Blue Devils are a dramatically different team than they were at the start of ACC play. Roach has shifted to being the first man off the bench instead of Griffin, Theo John and Joey Baker have seen their minutes decrease in recent games and Keels’ field goal percentage increased from 36% in his first nine ACC games to 52% in his last nine ACC games heading into Friday night's contest. 

Griffin’s emergence has given Duke another premier offensive option, and Roach has proved in recent weeks that he can provide instant off-ball offense with his shooting ability. That has surely not been fun for opposing coaches to prepare for. 

“The purpose was to try to limit Williams and Griffin,” Syracuse head coach Jim Boeheim said of his triangle-and-two defense after Duke beat Syracuse Thursday. 

Boeheim and his squad succeeded Thursday in bottling up Griffin, but that left an opening for Moore and Roach to shine and ultimately carry the Blue Devils to the win. When a team is able to quiet Roach and force Moore to turn the ball over more than he usually does, then Griffin can tag back in like he did with his 21 points against Miami. 

Griffin’s marquee moment Friday came at the end of the first half instead of in the final minutes, when he went on a personal 12-point run to tie the score at 34 after it looked like Duke would be heading into the half down by double-digits.

“AJ [Griffin] really gave us a 12-point spurt there, and he’s done that at a number of times this season,” Krzyzewski said.

All that being said, there have been times this year when one has to wonder if having a set guy to take the last shot would have made a difference.

Banchero scored seven points and recorded three assists in the final five minutes in regulation of Duke’s loss against Florida State, yet he was not the player to take the last shot of the game at the end of overtime. 

It is easy to look back on that game now and pick it apart, especially when Duke ended up losing, but as the NCAA tournament gets closer, it’s those kinds of minute details that could be the deciding factor.

It’s been an ever-changing face filling the closer role all year and it’s been enough to get Duke 28 wins, a regular-season conference championship and a spot in the ACC tournament title game.

All that’s left is seeing if it will be enough to get Duke a 22nd conference championship and a sixth national title.

Jake C. Piazza

Jake Piazza is a Trinity senior and was sports editor of The Chronicle's 117th volume.


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