SAN FRANCISCO—Staring down the end of their beloved head coach’s career, the Blue Devils refused to quit, and they punched their ticket to the Elite Eight because of it.
The second-seeded Blue Devils traveled to San Francisco for the West Regional, where they toppled the third-seeded Red Raiders 78-73 in the Sweet 16 at the Chase Center. After a slow start that saw the Red Raiders dominate for the first few minutes, the Blue Devils rallied in heroic fashion, as the matchup became a tight battle of energized offenses in the second.
"I've never played in a basketball game like that. When you’re out there, it’s not like you’re even thinking. You’re just playing to win," freshman phenom Paolo Banchero—who finished with a team-leading 22 points, four rebounds, four assists and three steals—said after the game.
With four minutes on the clock, the Blue Devils were down one despite four players being in double-digit points. Two Jeremy Roach drives, a Banchero triple and a Mark Williams block later, Duke was up three with one and a half to go. It was then Roach sank yet another clutch jumper to put Duke up five with under a minute to go.
"The resolve of Jeremy Roach was incredible. His drives against that defense were so strong, so determined," head coach Mike Krzyzewski said.
However, Roach then missed the free throw, and Texas Tech responded with a dunk, cutting Duke’s lead to three with 26 seconds remaining. Then, after being fouled on the inbounds, Wendell Moore Jr. went to the line, closed his eyes, took a deep breath, and sunk two free throws to give Duke a five points lead with 25 to go.
The Red Raiders wouldn’t quit, though, and Adonis Arms drained a quick 3-pointer to bring the Red Raiders within two. Thirteen seconds, up two points, Duke had to figure out a way to close out the game.
Chants of “Let’s go Duke” erupted, and Texas Tech once again went for the inbounds foul. AJ Griffin, on yet another hot shooting night, made both, though, and Duke maintained a two-possession cushion with 12.9 seconds left.
When Arms missed his next 3-point attempt and Banchero made one of two free throws with under five seconds to go, they had done it. The Blue Devils were going to the Elite Eight.
"I think all year, in the biggest moments, we always stepped up, and there's no bigger moment than this," Banchero said.
After a hotly contested first half that saw Duke trail by four entering the locker room, the Blue Devils began the second with a little more skip in their step, scoring on each of their first four possessions, though they couldn’t stop Texas Tech from doing the same.
Roach, who ended with 15 points, 11 in the second half, and five assists, continued his fiery play from the opening period with one of the slick drives to the basket he’s been pulling out more and more in the postseason. Meanwhile, Williams grabbed a quick eight points in the first five minutes with three makes from under the basket and two free throws, and graduate transfer Theo John got on the board with a put-back layup. Finally, a wing three from Griffin dotted the “i” on a Duke run that knotted the score at 47 with 12 to go.
Then, after not leading since midway through the first half, Duke gained two points on the Red Raiders with a dextrous pullup jumper from Banchero, sending the sea of Blue in the Chase Center into a frenzy.
“Great players just go. The moment and the need take them to a place that a great player would love to be in. And that’s where he was," Krzyzewski said of how Banchero stepped up.
Still, the Red Raiders would not be outdone, going on a 4-0 burst, before another drive from Roach, plus the and-one, continued an exciting back-and-forth half of basketball.
While Duke’s offense seemingly found its footing, moving the ball to break Texas Tech’s defensive scheme, the Red Raiders were efficient at capitalizing on Duke mistakes.
However, a corner three from Banchero—his second triple on three attempts—and a pair of free throws from Mark Williams put the Blue Devils right back on top.
Though Bryson Williams sank a three to catch the Red Raiders up, a drive from Moore and an and-one kept the Blue Devils’ narrow one-point lead. For a matchup billed as a battle of defense, with under seven minutes on the clock, it sure looked like a shootout. Sure enough, a spin-move and a layup from Banchero then grabbed Duke its largest lead of the game, up three, but Bryson Williams responded quickly with his own for Texas Tech.
The crowd reached deafening levels after a Banchero-assisted slam dunk from Mark Williams, but the Blue Devils found themselves briefly their own enemy, as two turnovers in under 30 seconds gave the Red Raiders the chance to once again tie up then lead the game.
Texas Tech came out to start the game on fire, forcing three turnovers and subsequent fastbreaks to gain a 10-2 lead in the first four and a half minutes. The Red Raiders’ signature stifling defense gained them opportunities on the other side of the court, exacerbated by Duke’s early shooting woes, with the Blue Devils going 1-of-5 through their first six attempts.
"Obviously, we weren't ready for that level of expertise on defense," Krzyzewski said. "The end of the half was critical. They had a seven-point lead, and we were able to score and not let them score, so all of a sudden you're looking at a four-point [game] and we have the ball."
However, Duke got back into it just a few minutes later, after consecutive makes from Griffin and Moore put the Blue Devils within three, a steal and an and-one layup from Banchero tied up the game at the 13:15 mark.
From there on, Duke and Texas Tech traded baskets, with the Blue Devils unable to take the lead away from the Red Raiders, but the challengers in red also unable to build a lead of more than four at the half.
Next, the Blue Devils will take on Arkansas in the Elite Eight Saturday.
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Sasha Richie is a Trinity senior and a sports managing editor of The Chronicle's 118th volume.