GREENVILLE, S.C. — The Duke Blue Devils would have been excused for feeling a little pressure on Sunday afternoon. Duke found itself down by five late in the second half against Michigan State. In addition to the usual one-and-done pressure of the NCAA Tournament, there was no tomorrow for Hall of Fame head coach Mike Krzyzewski. Duke’s next loss will be his last.
The Blue Devils seemed ready to push Coach K’s career mortality at least one weekend down the line after building a nine-point lead midway through the second half, but Michigan State dominated the offensive boards and knocked down 3-pointers with abandon to flip the game and put Duke on the edge of the abyss. Freshman shooter AJ Griffin limped to the bench with a leg injury that would keep him out the rest of the game, and things looked bleaker still.
As the season and Coach K’s career teetered, the Blue Devils found they had more heroes than they needed as they rallied to a 85-76 comeback win over the Spartans.
“My thing was, the game was far from over,” Duke forward Wendell Moore said of the feeling in the huddle at the under four-minute media timeout. “There was three or four minutes left. There’s so much time left on the clock, I knew we had a chance, and once we got our foot in the door, there was going to be no looking back from there. … Losing didn’t come up one time. In the huddle, we looked in each other’s eyes, and we knew we weren’t going to lose.”
Jeremy Roach, who didn’t make a shot in the first half, drove to the basket and scored, then did it again. And again. With 3:24 left, Trevor Keels, who lost his starting job to Roach at the start of March Madness, hit a game-tying 3. Two possessions later, Paolo Banchero drove baseline to give Duke the lead back.
“It’s the NCAA Tournament,” said Banchero. “The season’s on the line every single game. That’s all that needs to be said. We knew we could either lay down or we turn it up. “
Clinging to a one-point lead with the shot clock running down, Banchero found his path to the basket blocked. He passed to Moore, who found Roach for a 3-pointer that extended the lead to four.
“I thought when we got down, we were young for awhile, there,” Krzyzewski said. “I was wondering if we were going to stay young. Maybe it was the Powerade or whatever, but my guys were so tough. The last four to five minutes, the defense was incredible. Jeremy hit a huge 3 for us, and his drives — he willed that ball in. They were some of the best drives I’ve seen as the Duke coach, especially in a pressure situation.
“Trevor, who’s been struggling from the field, his 3 was outstanding. Obviously, our captain, Wendell, played well. Paolo’s bucket along the baseline was huge. Mark (Williams, who had two blocks on late Michigan State possessions) looked like a hockey goalie trying to protect our net.”
Krzyzewski brought all five heroes to the postgame press conference and got choked up as he turned to address them.
“I’m incredibly proud of my guys,” he said. “You guys were terrific, man. I’m so … I’m really proud to be your coach.”
He will be for at least 40 more minutes of game time. The close call with the end seemed to have Krzyzewski in a reflective mood.
“I’m 75,” he said. “To have moments like that, you’ve got to be kidding me. How damn lucky can you be? I want to share it. I don’t want to sit down and say you guys enjoy it. I want to be in the party a little bit. I’ve had 47 years. Today was one of the really good days.”
Now Duke heads to the Sweet 16 for the 26th time in Krzyzewski’s career.
“I’m proud of the fact we’ve been there for four or five decades, at least knocking on the door,” he said. “Five times, the door let us completely in. I’ve got guys that want to win. Our goal is to win the whole thing all the time, even if we’re young. You don’t go to those Sweet 16s with talent. You go with character.”
And when times were tough on Sunday, five Blue Devils showed their character.
“It had nothing to do with coaching in the last four to five minutes,” he said. “It had to do with heart.”
“I love these kids,” he added. “They’re becoming men.”