BROOKLYN — Duke was picked as the preseason favorite to win the ACC title back in October. Saturday night, just as predicted, the Blue Devils claimed the league’s tournament championship for a record 20th time.
That’s about the only thing that went according to plan for coach Mike Krzyzewski and his team this season.
There were so many ups and downs between that preseason poll and the nets coming down at Barclay’s Center — including injuries, distractions and even a leave of absence for the Hall of Fame coach himself — not even Krzyzewski is sure how Duke pulled it off.
The fifth-seeded Blue Devils completed a historic run through the tournament with a 75-69 victory against No. 3 Notre Dame to become the first team ever to claim the crown by winning four games in four days.
Freshman Jayson Tatum scored 19 points and tournament MVP Luke Kennard added 16, while Matt Jones’ only basket of the game was the biggest of them all, as Duke found a way to win despite its own tired legs and a remarkable 29-point, nine-rebound performance from the Irish’s Bonzie Colson.
“I was mentioning to a few people that my team has taken me on this journey this week that you could not plan,” Krzyzewski said. “First of all, the high caliber of teams that you had to beat in order to achieve this. And the deficits that you had to overcome in each of the last three games,
“They stayed fresh. You know, they’re really a good group, and they’ve been through so much with injuries and me being out, just so much. So they’re close, and I think that closeness paid off for us.”
The Blue Devils (27-8) beat 12th-seeded Clemson, fourth-seeded Louisville and No. 1 North Carolina to earn a spot in Saturday’s championship game. In each of the last two, they had to battle back from double-figure second half deficits to claim their victories.
Though the hole they dug for themselves wasn’t quite as deep this time, it may have been the most difficult to overcome because of the fatigue that had begun to set in. Notre Dame took its first lead of the night at 41-40 with 17:11 remaining and extended it to as many as eight five minutes later.
When V.J. Beacham converted a Grayson Allen turnover into a resounding dunk to make it 56-48, it looked as though Duke might be done. But Amile Jefferson wasn’t about to let that happen.
The fifth-year senior answered Beecham’s basket with one of his own as he was fouled. He scored the next time down the floor, too, to ignite an 11-2 run that ended with another Jefferson basket and a 41-40 Blue Devil lead.
“They made a really good push in the second half. I thought they speeded the game up and it kind of knocked us back,” said Jefferson, who finished with 14 points, five rebounds and three blocks.
“But all our guys stayed poised. No one was ever like rattled. That’s sometimes when you see when things like that happen. You see guys splinter. But after timeouts, we huddled and we were strong.”
Instead of calling set plays down the stretch, Krzyzewski turned his tired team loose and simply told them to go out and make plays.
“I just let these guys do what we call as motion,” the Blue Devils coach said. “Basically we thought that they would assert themselves more. They own motion more than if we run a play.
“I know they were really tired, so by taking ownership and attacking like that, they made it work.”
The strategy suited Tatum in particular. The freshman forward scored eight of his team’s final 18 points, including a coast-to-coast drive that extended his team’s lead to 66-65 with 2:02 left.
His most important play, however, was a drive into the lane in which he passed back out to Jones for a 3-point dagger that put the Irish away with 48.9 seconds left. The basket was Jones’ first since Wednesday’s opening round. But he never hesitated in pulling the trigger.
“Just me and Amile, everything we’ve been through, we told each other we weren’t going back to Durham without it,” Jones said of his fellow senior. “So that was the big motivation for us and we just made that message known to all the other guys. That was kind of the motivation throughout that ball game.”