GREENVILLE, S.C. — It was only three years, but for Duke, it seemed like an eternity since the last NCAA Tournament game.
The Blue Devils played their first March Madness game since 2019 and recorded a 78-61 win over Cal State Fullerton to advance to the round of 32 on Sunday.
“It is a long time,” said coach Mike Krzyzewski, who ended his longest tournament drought since the first years of his Duke career, 40 years ago. “ That team that we had when the pandemic hit was a team that had a chance to go deep. Last year was just a lost year for us. It felt great to be back here.”
Joey Baker, who logged seven minutes against North Dakota State in 2019, was the only player to suit up for Duke in the tournament, although transfers Theo John and Bates Jones each had a taste of March at other schools.
“I was concerned about how nervous our guys would be,” Krzyzewski said.
The Blue Devils jumped out to a 13-2 lead and never trailed against Fullerton, giving the team a get-well game after struggling in the last four games, particularly on defense.
“It gave us a chance to reset on things heading into the tournament,” said Paolo Banchero, who led Duke with 17 points and 10 rebounds. “Now we get a chance to take it one game at a time. Every game, our season’s on the line. We need to make sure everybody’s sharp and ready to go. We’ve locked back in on the defensive end. The mindset is there. The willingness to actually go out and do it is there.”
The last time Duke played in Greenville, South Carolina, was 2017 when the Blue Devils were upset in the second round. While an upset wasn’t a serious concern from the opening tip on, there were still some ghosts in the arena that seemed to play havoc with the team.
A snafu at the arena’s entrances kept the vast majority of the crowd from being seated for the start of the game, and late into the first half, the arena was still filling up.
“Is someone going to show up?” Krzyzewski recalled asking facetiously. The odd scene brought back memories of empty arenas during the COVID pandemic.
More pressing was the arena floor, which was atop the ice rink for the ECHL’s Swamp Rabbits. The temperature difference caused condensation to form, and players fell several times. Wendell Moore fell twice on the same sequence, and Jeremy Roach fell a short time later.
“Paolo said he slipped coming out for warmups,” Krzyzewski said.
Moore got the worst of it, leaving the game for a period during the first half immediately following the falls.
“My hip is just a little tight,” he said. “Once I got it moving again in the second half, I thought it was OK. I’ll get it checked out later, and I’ll be good to go Sunday, either way.”
“Somebody should look at it,” Krzyzewski said of the floor. “That’s not good. Hopefully, it’s nothing serious with Wendell. (If not) I mean, your season’s over, because of a slippery floor?”
Moore shook off the hip issues to finish with 13 points, six rebounds and a team-high six assists. Five Blue Devils scored in double figures.
Now, the team has one game of NCAA experience under its belt as the Blue Devils face the winner of Davidson and Michigan State.
“For sure it was a step in the right direction,” said Moore. “It’s been three years since I got here. For sure, it was a special moment.”