BROOKLYN, N.Y.—Consider that chance squandered.
No. 1-seed Duke, on the heels of consecutive last-minute victories against Syracuse and Miami, victories that inspired some semblance of confidence in its capacity to shut the door late in games, fell flat on its face with a conference tournament title on the line.
No. 7-seed Virginia Tech, in its first entry into the ACC tournament final, was the better team for every second Saturday. Plain and simple. With their fourth win in four days, the Hokies went from firmly outside the bubble to automatic-bid getters.
“This is the caliber of team and execution that you’re gonna have to beat in order to advance,” Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski said.
Obviously, the focus now shifts to the NCAA tournament, the ultimate postseason thrill-ride that Duke will partake in for the first time since 2019.
But the opportunity that the Blue Devils just missed out on should not go unnoticed. Not today, and not when the minutiae of this unconventional season is inevitably broken down bit by bit.
“Obviously it’s extremely disappointing, we came down here to ultimately win a championship. We fell short of our goal,” junior captain Wendell Moore Jr. said.
Everything, literally everything, had lined up for Duke to sweep the ACC regular season and tournament titles. Five potential first round picks on the roster. The conference plummeting into utter mediocrity. Notre Dame and North Carolina, the No. 2 and No. 3 seeds in the ACC tournament, getting knocked out in the quarterfinals and semifinals, respectively.
But on the doorstep of the coveted sweep, Duke ran into the red-hot Hokies, now winners of 13 of their last 15 contests. Boy, did that end poorly.
In a complete clinic defined by exquisite ball movement, precise cutting and lights-out shooting, the Hokies made every key bucket, jumped on every key loose ball and snatched every key ounce of momentum.
“Look, they were 2-7 at one time in our conference. In my profession, I respect the other guy. And they deserve utmost respect,” Krzyzewski said, referring to the Hokies’ late-season rally.
Your eventual result? Virginia Tech 82, Duke 67, with Justyn Mutts’ thunderous jam on Paolo Banchero with 2:27 remaining serving as the knockout punch.
Krzyzewski, who was incapable of hiding his disgust with the referees and his team’s performance the entire night, threw in the towel just over a minute later, sending in Jaylen Blakes, Michael Savarino, Joey Baker, Keenan Worthington and Bates Jones.
“Gratifying,” Virginia Tech head coach Mike Young said on what it meant to capture the program’s first ACC tournament title. “To get here with a group of people that I love…. A lot of people carrying a lot of water, everyday, to help these guys. Special night, really cool night.”
Without any gratification, and the lack of an ACC sweep, Duke’s resumé honestly feels incomplete. November wins against Kentucky and Gonzaga are fine and dandy, and the regular-season ACC crown is without a doubt a notable achievement.
But this was the ACC tournament for crying out loud. The marquee event for this conference, in the city that never sleeps. A straightforward chance to leave no doubt with regards to who was the ACC’s best, and whether the Blue Devils were truly peaking in time for the NCAA tournament.
When the orange confetti fell from the rafters, making it official, there was still a heck of a lot of doubt left to spare. Duke might have won 80% of the time in that 20-game ACC sample size, but let’s be real, Brooklyn was supposed to be the true coronation.
It was supposed to prove that when you combine this much talent, and arguably the greatest coach in the history of the sport, the only possible result in this setting is 120 minutes of utter dominance.
But ultimately, the Blue Devils could not get the job done. Not on this night, when they were outgunned on the offensive glass 13-4. Not when they shot a dreadful 4-of-20 from distance, with multiple wide open looks in the final 20 minutes clanking off the iron. And especially not when Hunter Cattoor, who had one of the ultimate microwave man performances, dropped 31 points and seven triples.
“He’s running off a lot of down screens, I think our communication was a little off. I think we fought through some of [the screens] but again, he made some tough shots. That’s really what big-time players do,” guard Trevor Keels said on Cattoor.
From a macro level, Duke now regroups, and awaits its seeding and region for the NCAA tournament. Thanks to their 28-6 record, those aforementioned cornerstone victories, and a first-place finish in the final conference standings, the Blue Devils will be a No. 2 or No. 3 seed and have a puncher’s chance at a run to New Orleans.
“These kids have done a great job,” Krzyzewski said, defending Duke’s body of work. “We start three freshmen, two of them are 18 years old. They’ve won 28 games, they’ve won the regular season and they’re gonna be a top-three seed somewhere, two or three seed. Come on, they’ve had a fantastic year, I’m proud of them.
“That's the ticket you punch. Everyone punches a ticket, and you get a place in line. We’ll find our place in line tomorrow, ours will be a decent one, and you’re 0-0, you go for it,” Krzyzewski said.
Still, the ACC was supposed to be Duke’s domain all season long. The conference, a far cry from where it was just a short three years ago, was there for the taking.
Instead, Young, Cattoor, Keve Aluma and Storm Murphy were at the podium shortly after cutting down the nets, chuckling and grinning as champions.
That could have been Duke. If what was expected had played out, it would have been Duke. But the top-seeded Blue Devils, who were favored in all 23 ACC contests, blew their chance. A chance at the program’s 22nd ACC tournament title, and the 16th under Krzyzewski, that they will not get back. No matter what happens the rest of the way.
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Max Rego is a Trinity senior and an associate sports editor for The Chronicle's 118th volume. He was previously sports managing editor for Volume 117.