GREENVILLE, S.C.—It took everything, and still it may have slipped away. But the Blue Devils, built on a team-wide takeover and a remarkable will to win, lived to see another day.
Everyone in Bon Secours Wellness Arena in Greenville, S.C., knew Sunday’s game would be a tight one the moment Michigan State took off to a 7-2 lead at the start of the game. It was a matter of taking two hall-of-fame coaches and putting their teams on the floor together just to see what would happen. Sunday evening, just when it seemed like the Blue Devils and Spartans had squeezed everything and more out of a 40-minute basketball game, it was Duke that screamed ahead in the final minutes to take the second-round victory 85-76.
“It had nothing to do with coaching those last four or five minutes,” head coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “It all had to do with heart and togetherness. They followed their hearts and God bless them.”
As Krzyzewski hinted, it was not that the Blue Devils needed the plays drawn up, or that they could not find their guy to be the closer. Down five with 5:10 left in the game, every one of the Blue Devils on the floor turned the intensity up a notch to a level not previously seen this season.
“The season’s on the line every single game,” freshman forward Paolo Banchero said. “We got down…. We can either lay down, or we can turn it up. That’s really all it was.”
“You’re not gonna talk about losing or else you’re going to lose,” Krzyzewski said.
Down one starter after freshman forward AJ Griffin left the game with an injury to his lower left leg, freshman Trevor Keels reentered the game. Keels had been nothing close to the star he began the season looking like he could become. Having missed 15 straight threes dating back to the first half of Duke's ACC tournament game against Syracuse, the Clinton, Md., native hit his elbow on the floor. Just moments removed from grimacing and looking like an exit was imminent, he spotted up at the top of the key for a 3-pointer—one that both ended the 31.9% 3-point shooter’s drought and tied the game at 72-72 with 3:24 on the clock. That’s determination.
A minute later, with the Spartans leading by one, Michigan State guard AJ Hoggard drove to the hoop only to be stifled by the fifth Mark Williams block of the game.
“Mark was like a hockey goalie the whole night, trying to protect our net,” Krzyzewski said of his sophomore center.
With the rebound, toeing the baseline, the 7-footer dumped it forward, leading to a go-ahead lay-in from Banchero. That’s perseverance.
A possession later, with the shot clock ticking down, sophomore guard Jeremy Roach took one dribble with his left hand before pulling up for a high-arcing dagger of a three. Time and time again, it has felt like Roach is the guy hitting the big shots, and that’s no coincidence. Steady improvement throughout the season—despite temporarily losing his starting job—got him the ball, but more importantly the confidence to let it fly. That’s an enduring drive to be there when his team needs him.
“He’s had many more ups than downs,” Krzyzewski said.
Roach’s crossovers and drives down low had the Duke crowd roaring and his coach practically speechless—”the best drives I’ve seen as a Duke coach,” he called them.
With just over a minute to go and Duke holding a one point lead, junior captain Wendell Moore Jr. said he called out “green,” signaling the end of the shot clock and the need to get the ball to an open shot. His dish to Roach showed trust and fluidity, players one through five, that hasn’t been seen too often by this Duke team, especially late in games.
“We’ve never stopped believing in him because he’s believable,” Krzyzewski added.
A Moore steal and two calm free throws later, the game was all but over and Duke could breathe.
Belief. Toughness. Heart. Togetherness.
A plethora of words could describe what Duke brought to the table Sunday night. It all summed up to the Blue Devils living to see another day in the tournament, with Thursday’s game now scheduled against No. 3-seed Texas Tech in San Francisco.
The game also held some significance for Krzyzewski.
A reporter reminded the 75-year-old coach that the victory marks his 26th Sweet 16 appearance.
“I didn’t know that,” Krzyzewski responded.
That wasn’t for show. In the moment, much like his Blue Devils were Sunday when they went on a 20-6 run to close out Michigan State, getting caught up in the records and the numbers is just too easy. Krzyzewski told the press Saturday and again Sunday that while his postseason matchups against the Spartans and head coach Tom Izzo have become a collection of iconic games, he won’t acknowledge his success in the series or what that means to his legacy.
He is locked in. His players—who comprise one of the younger groups he has coached—are, too. The last two weeks have given the Blue Devils some struggles, but with the performances from Banchero, Keels, Roach, Moore and Williams, the losses are in the rearview.
“I love these kids. They’re becoming men.”
“They’re good players, but they’re really good guys.”
“I’m really proud to be your coach.”
Just some of the postgame remarks from Krzyzewski illustrate a changed tone around this team as it prepares for its next game—against one of the top defenses in the country. While the shots were falling Sunday night—Duke shot 57.1% from the field in one of its top offensive performances of recent games—it looked as if no amount of talent could have stopped what the Blue Devils began after one of their star players limped off the court.
“You don’t go to those Sweet 16s with just talent, you do it with character,” Krzyzewski said.
Krzyzewski—who also earned his 1,200th all-time victory and 99th NCAA tournament win Sunday—more so than almost any coach in the history of sports, knows what it’s like to win.
“We’ve been there for four decades that we’re at least knocking on the door,” Krzyzewski said. “Five times the door let us completely in.”
That remark is so fitting, given that their next game will be held miles away from the Golden Gate—a metaphorical gate to promise.
With more performances like Sunday’s, the door might just be letting this team in.
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Micah Hurewitz is a Trinity junior and a sports managing editor of The Chronicle's 118th volume.