As 2022 comes to a close, The Chronicle's sports department takes a look back at the biggest stories of the year in Duke athletics. Each day, we will review a major game, event or storyline that helped shape the course of the year for the Blue Devils.
Coming in at No. 1: Duke men's basketball almost pulled off the storybook ending in head coach Mike Krzyzewski's final season, marching all the way to the Final Four before the inevitable end. For the full list, click here.
The “last chance” phenomenon welcomes urgency. When a window of opportunity approaches its close, there’s always a rush, a final grab for whatever light shines at the quickly approaching end of the tunnel. For head coach Mike Krzyzewski, that light was a sixth national title to close out a 42-year career already shrouded in greatness. And he got pretty close to it, surpassing John Wooden with a record 13th Final Four appearance.
Unsurprisingly, Duke’s team last season was built on young talent, with all eyes upon freshman forward and eventual No. 1 NBA Draft pick Paolo Banchero. The Seattle native was accompanied on the court by star sophomore Mark Williams, essentially making his debut after a pandemic-obscured freshman season. Sophomore guard Jeremy Roach and freshmen AJ Griffin and Trevor Keels joined this dynamic duo in storming to a regular-season ACC title to earn Duke a No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament.
It wasn’t an easy ride, though. Youth stood out as an obstacle for Krzyzewski to manage: Raw talent does not a champion make. Duke lost its first game away from home against Ohio State, just days after defeating then-No. 1 Gonzaga in Las Vegas. From there, the road to the NCAA tournament began; though it proved mostly smooth, it had its bumps along the way, the biggest being a loss in the ACC tournament final matchup against Virginia Tech.
Strangely enough, the ever-anticipated rivalry games against North Carolina flipped their usual script. The Blue Devils claimed the first matchup—not at home, but rather in enemy territory in Chapel Hill. Griffin took this game by storm, knocking down a season-high 27 points to claim a 87-67 victory for his team. Then came time for Tar Heel revenge, as North Carolina came back to shock Duke 94-81 in Krzyzewski’s final game in Cameron Indoor.
Skepticism surrounded the Blue Devils’ chances for national success with lofty expectations on their shoulders. In fine Duke fashion, Krzyzewski and his young team smashed those expectations, with 78 as the magic number.
First, it was 78 points to beat Cal State Fullerton in round one at the NCAA tournament: This game was a 78-61 breeze against a No. 15 seed that failed to throw the wrench in the tournament flow.
Duke progressed to round two, a closer matchup against No. 7-seed Michigan State. With five minutes remaining, Spartan guard Tyson Walker’s three put his team in the lead, demanding a last-minute comeback from the Blue Devils. Banchero, Williams and Keels all put points on the board in the final minutes, and Roach hit the go-ahead three in the 85-76 win.
Then, it was 78 points to knock off Texas Tech in the Sweet 16. The 78-73 Duke win was decided with four last-minute free-throws from Griffin and Moore. It was this performance that sealed Roach as Duke’s future captain: With 15 points, four rebounds and five assists, the 6-foot-2 Virginia native anchored the win for the Blue Devils, while Banchero and Williams scored 22 and 16 points, respectively.
Finally, it was 78 points to take down Arkansas in the Elite Eight. The 78-69 win was an exceptional one, as Duke faced off against a team that had just uprooted No. 1-seed Gonzaga. Krzyzewski allowed Banchero, Williams, Roach and Moore upwards of 35 minutes each as all five starters did their part to help Duke prevail over the Razorbacks and earn a coveted ticket to New Orleans for the Final Four.
There is something poetic about Krzyzewski closing his career out against North Carolina. For the first time, Duke met its fiercest rival in the NCAA tournament. There was not a moment of clarity in the 40 minutes, as everybody in the Superdome seemed to know that the game would remain undecided until the very end.
In the end, Tar Heel guard Caleb Love tossed up a 3-pointer and a couple of shots from the charity stripe to secure his team’s 81-77 victory. Duke finished one point shy of the lucky number 78 that had carried it to that point.
Krzyzewski’s final game was delivered in style, as the Blue Devils fought until the very end in what may be the most competitive meeting of the Tobacco Road rivalry yet. That a team with so much to lose managed to hold off on that loss for so long was more than impressive—it was a testament and a tribute to the 42-year career that redefined college basketball.
READ MORE on Duke men's basketball's Final Four run:
END OF THE ROAD: Duke men’s basketball falls to North Carolina in iconic Final Four showdown
Duke men's basketball's year didn’t end in a fairy tale. But this season has been about more than that
BEST IN THE WEST: Duke men's basketball defeats Arkansas to advance to Final Four
In Duke men's basketball's journey to the Final Four, it's been all about the little stories
How Duke men's basketball's 'unacceptable' loss to North Carolina set the Blue Devils on path to rivalry rematch at Final Four
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Sophie Levenson is a Trinity first-year and sports features editor of The Chronicle's 119th volume.