Duke saw the end of its season and didn’t blink.
The Blue Devils blew a nine-point lead in the second half and saw Michigan State pull ahead by five in the waning minutes. The Spartans ended Duke’s last best shot to make the Final Four, knocking out the Zion Williamson team in 2019’s Elite Eight, and it appeared that Tom Izzo was going to spoil another party and end Mike Krzyzewski’s career.
Facing the end of the run — both for this season’s team and for Coach K, retiring once Duke plays its last game of the season — Duke fought back, with each player on the floor making key plays to mount a furious comeback and give Krzyzewski at least another few days — and 40 more minutes — on the bench.
“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,” said Duke forward Wendell Moore Jr. “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 made a series of drives to the basket that Coach K called among the best he’s seen in all his time at Duke. He also hit a 3-pointer to extend a one-point lead to four. Paolo Banchero had a gutty baseline drive and layup to give Duke the one-point lead to begin with. Trevor Keels hit a game-tying 3-pointer, and Mark Williams and Banchero both had key blocks on the other end of the floor.
“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. “
“My guys were so tough,” Krzyzewski said. “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.”
While Coach K has won more games than anyone else, he didn’t take credit for the comeback.
“It had nothing to do with coaching in the last four to five minutes,” he said. “It had to do with heart.”
Teams that mount a comeback like that can go one of two ways the next time they take the floor in the tournament. Duke said all the right things, about how the team learned from the experience and has grown up along the way. Sometimes, a gritty comeback can be a jumping-off point to trigger a run that ends in a Final Four or title.
“I love these kids,” Krzyzewski said. “They’re becoming men.”
While there are certainly signs that the win will do that for Duke, there are also signs that it will go the other way. The team spent a great deal of emotion to reach the Sweet 16, and it could be tough to refuel the tank to do it all over again.
Krzyzewski often says that coaches can’t look back or too far ahead during the season, or they’ll trip over the next game. The team saw a textbook example of that in Coach K’s final game at Cameron Indoor. With 96 former players in attendance and a weekend-long celebration of Krzyzewski’s career, the Blue Devils stumbled and suffered an embarrassing loss to the hated Tar Heels.
The team certainly sounded like they were reflecting on a successful season immediately after the Michigan State game.
“I’m incredibly proud of my guys,” Krzyzewski said, getting choked up. “You guys were terrific, man. I’m so … I’m really proud to be your coach.”
Also, after refusing to comment on the end of the line all season long, he seemed to be ready to reminisce a little. In addition to comparing Roach’s drive to others he’s seen at Duke — a line of questioning that Coach K usually slaps down, refusing to compare players or teams he’s seen — he talked about his five decades at Duke, his five championships and his Sweet 16s.
“I’m 75,” he added. “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.”
Toughened by fire or mission accomplished? Thursday’s game against a Texas Tech team that features the nation’s toughest defense will determine which way the team goes.