COLUMBIA, S.C. — The Blue Devils advanced to the Sweet 16 for the 27th time in school history and 25th under coach Mike Krzyzewski with wins over North Dakota State and Central Florida in Columbia, S.C.
As Duke prepares for a rematch with ACC foe Virginia Tech, which beat the Blue Devils in February, here’s a look at what went right for Duke in the opening weekend of March Madness.
Survive and advance
The biggest thing that went right for Duke is that its season didn’t end on Sunday. For much of the final two minutes of the game with UCF, that appeared to be the likely outcome. Duke trailed by four points late before RJ Barrett’s putback of a missed Zion Williamson free throw gave the Blue Devils a one-point lead. A potential game-winning shot by B.J. Taylor missed and Aubrey Dawkins’ tip-in attempt teetered on the rim before falling away at the buzzer to preserve a Duke win.
Instead of a monumental upset, Duke had a dramatic win to continue its run, in an epic game that will go down in Blue Devils’ March history with Rhode Island in 1988, UConn in 1990, UNLV in 1991, Kentucky in 1992 and Butler in 2010.
“Coach K talks a lot about the basketball gods,” Williamson said. “They had our back tonight.”
Duke is a young team, but its toughness has been evident in the last month. The UCF game was Duke’s third one-point win in the month of March. From Thanksgiving 2013 to the end of this past February, the Blue Devils on had three one-point wins before matching that in a 19-day span.
It’s the first time Duke has won three one-pointers in a month and the first time the Blue Devils have had three one-point wins in a season since 1981-82.
“These kids, my guys, hung in there,” Krzyzewski said. “They hung in there, because just the momentum of the tournament, what’s going on, you could be defeated right there, and instead, they hung in there. … The will to win of Zion and RJ, you can’t measure it. It’s just there, and it’s — they’re young — we’re a young group, but what they did right at the end of that game in willing us to win was just absolutely sensational.”
Williamson followed his ACC Tournament MVP performance with 57 points in the two games, demonstrating that he’s fully back from the knee injury that kept him out the final two weeks of the regular season.
Duke also got back center Marques Bolden, who wore a bulky knee brace after suffering an MCL injury in the regular season finale and missing the ACC Tourney. He scored only two points in limited minutes but should be able to expand his role as March rolls on. “Marquis came out really well,” Krzyzewski said after the first game. “I thought he did a good job, especially guarding.”
Duke was also without Jack White. The forward suffered a partially torn hamstring in the ACC championship game. “He had a decent workout today with band work and that,” Krzyzewski said while ruling him out for the second game. The team is hopeful to get him back soon.
Long arm of DeLau
Forward Javin DeLaurier has struggled with foul trouble all season, but the junior captain has learned to play with fouls as the year went on. After logging more than 20 minutes in a game once in the season’s first 26 contests, he’s had five 20-plus minute outings in the last 10, including 24 minutes against UCF. That includes playing the final 3:50 with four fouls and playing defense (including a blocked shot) on 7-foot-6 Tacko Fall.
Krzyzewski famously shortens his bench as the year goes on, relying on his stars to lead the team. The combination of injuries has caused him to reverse course this year. Backup point guard Jordan Goldwire has seen his minutes increase since the end of the regular season and often plays on the floor with starter Tre Jones, allowing the team to put more pressure on opponents. Krzyzewski also gave reserve center Antonio Vrankovich significant minutes in Charlotte, and little-used freshman shooter Joey Baker scored his first basket in the NCAA opener.
The rotation is still in flux — Alex O’Connell didn’t play at all against UCF — but Duke seems to have more options for Krzyzewski to try than in many years.