GREENVILLE, S.C.—In 2019, Tom Izzo and Michigan State ended Duke’s dream-team-esque NCAA tournament run. That was the last time the two programs met in March. This time it was a different story, and head coach Mike Krzyzewski made sure of it.
This was a hard-fought battle through and through, but in the end the Blue Devils came out on top 85-76. Both teams were going at it, protecting small leads and hitting tough shots, for the entire 40 minutes. And although this game was played four hours from Durham in Bon Secours Wellness Arena, it really played like a home game for second-seeded Duke with blue shirts taking up well more than half of the crowd.
"Look, I'm 75. To have moments like [today's game], you've got to kidding me. Really how damn lucky can you be in that..." Krzyzewski said. "I've had 47 years, today was one of the really good days."
With just over six minutes left in the game, Duke gave up the lead it had been holding for so long, and the pressure was on. A Michigan State 3-pointer and pair of free throws began to bury the Blue Devils as they found themselves down 70-65 deep in the second half.
But Duke wasn’t done just yet. Freshman guard Trevor Keels' first 3-pointer since Duke’s ACC tournament game against Syracuse tied the game up with just over three minutes to play and Paolo Banchero’s tough layup a minute later gave them the lead right back. Sophomore guard Jeremy Roach splashed perhaps the biggest 3-pointer of his career on Duke’s next possession and the four-point lead was restored with 1:07 to play. Then, a Wendell Moore Jr. steal and pair of free throws all but put the game away.
"I'm incredibly proud of my guys... you guys were terrific, man. I'm really proud to be your coach," Krzyzewski said to his players. "It had nothing to do with coaching these last four or five minutes. It all had to do with heart and togetherness."
Every time the Blue Devils would open up a lead, the Spartans would claw their way back in, making this game as interesting as any of the other great March Madness games we have seen this year.
Duke’s defense played well yet again, mainly on the interior, as they allowed just 42% shooting. The past two games have been a complete defensive turnaround from the North Carolina game and ACC tournament—in large part, due to Mark Williams who posted five blocks, giving him 10 through the first two games of the tournament.
"I'm not thinking too much about like 'I want to get the block here.' It's more 'I want to win.' If that's the winning play, then I'll do it," Williams said.
Banchero had yet another spectacular game, leading the team in scoring with 19 points on 8-of-14 shooting (2-of-5 from deep) and playing another game of tough, in-your-face defense. On top of his defensive efforts, Williams additionally had a great offensive game, notching 15 points on 7-of-9 shooting. The Spartans seemed to have no answer for him on the interior, despite also boasting a 7-footer.
"It's the NCAA tournament. The season's on the line every game. So I mean, that's all that really needed to be said. We knew that..." Banchero said. "We can either lay down, or we can turn it up."
As a team, Duke shot a clean 57% from the field, which was exactly what it needed to pull off this win. Perhaps the most impressive aspect of this game was the Blue Devils’ ability to grab 10 offensive rebounds, which is something they are usually on the opposite end of.
The win was a painful one, as star freshman AJ Griffin went down late in the second half with what appeared to be a pretty serious ankle injury and did not return to the game, though he did remain on the bench.
The first half was consistently close. After the Spartans opened up an early 7-2 lead, Duke trailed until roughly the 10-minute mark when a Banchero signature midrange jumper gave the Blue Devils a one-point lead.
Michigan State’s offense stalled following that very important bucket, which allowed Duke to jump out to a seven-point lead. The Spartans had plenty of good looks to keep the game close or even take the lead, but it was as if there was a lid on the rim—Michigan State went scoreless for that six-minute stretch in the middle of the period.
As the half neared a close, a 3-point contest began between Banchero and Michigan State. Nine straight possessions with seven made threes had the crowd going insane. The Spartans' elite passing allowed for them to be the beneficiaries of five of those deep shots, which pulled them back into a game that seemed to be somewhat slipping away. Ultimately Duke took a four-point lead into half.
It was Gabe Brown who was lighting up Duke all half. He shot 4-of-4 from deep in the first 20 minutes and nearly single-handedly brought the Spartans within striking distance of Duke. Michigan State shot an incredible 7-of-10 from 3-point range in the first frame and the Blue Devils’ perimeter defense that half was indicative of what was displayed in the remainder of the game. Duke was only able to leave the half with a lead because its interior defense was so strong. The Spartans shot just 6-of-20 from inside the arc.
"It was reminiscent of the Final Four games. Both teams were lights out with the effort today," Krzyzewski said. "We're so very proud of winning this game because we bet a heck of a team, obviously, as well coached as any team in the country."
Duke needed performances from a large group of guys to maintain a lead throughout most of the period. Krzyzewski went eight-men deep when using his bench, with Bates Jones surprisingly taking captain Joey Baker’s spot as the eighth-man. Although Jones only saw a couple minutes, his time on the floor was much needed to get Banchero some rest.
Next, the Blue Devils head west to San Francisco for the Sweet 16 to play the winner of the Notre Dame-Texas Tech game.
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