How Duke’s Best Five Minutes of Basketball Saved Everything This Season as It Gathered Late Along the State of Michigan

GREENVILLE, SC — This was it. The moment had finally come. A Sunday in South Carolina was where and when Duke had to prove himself. If not, everything would collapse.

The second-seeded Blue Devils trailed 70-65 against No. 7 Michigan State with five minutes left in this feverish, meeting-the-hype second-round NCAA Tournament game. Elimination was now on the table. The prospect of the end of Mike Krzyzewski’s career had entered the room and hung in the air.

Michigan State hadn’t come to play – it came to break Duke open. Tom Izzo’s team looked hungry, opportunistic and alert. Deep into the second half, the Spartans showed they could spoil things for Duke and send Krzyzewski into retirement a few weeks before he wanted.

“I thought when we got down — we were young there for a while, and I wondered if we were going to stay young,” Krzyzewski said.

Making things even more problematic for Duke was the gimpy novice shooting guard, AJ Griffin. He was reduced to a spectator after hurting what appeared to be his left ankle with 8:32 left and Duke was 63-61. So here were these fun but flawed Blue Devils, their best shooter but a fan. MSU took its first lead since 11:11 of the first half three minutes after Griffin’s injury, when Tyson Walker cleared a three-pointer to make it 68-65. A few misfires from Marcus Bingham Jr. gave Sparty a five point lead.

You’ve come to this point, you’ve seen the headline, you’ve probably seen the match or highlights. There is no spoiler here. The result is not in dispute. The story of getting there is why we are here. Who knows where, when or how this Duke season will end? It could be Thursday in the Sweet 16, in San Francisco vs. 3-seed Texas Tech. It could be in the ultimate game in New Orleans with a national championship at stake.

That mystery solves itself in a relatively short time. But it remains an unknown due to the five minute game to close out Sunday’s game.

“What a game,” said Krzyzewski. “It was reminiscent of the Final Four games. Both teams were out of the effort today. We are so very proud of winning this game because we beat a great team, clearly coached as well as any other in the country.”

There’s a chance the final five minutes of Sunday’s 85-76 win over Michigan State will be the best and/or most important piece of Duke’s campaign. It made it through Sunday and it could spur it on to something much bigger. The Blue Devils responded to their biggest deficit of the night by rocking Michigan State. From the moment the game turned 70-65 in MSU’s favor, Duke had his best defensive piece this season, all circumstances considered.

“My guys were so strong in those last six minutes of the game,” said Krzyzewski. “The defense was incredible in the last four or five minutes.”

How incredible? From when the game was 70-65, this is how it ended from an efficiency standpoint:

Duke points per possession: 1.80
Michigan State Points Per Possession: 0.67

The Blue Devils got on a 15-4 run, which also included an 8-0 run, generally finishing the game with a 20-6 hammer throw to jump themselves to the regional semifinals.

“We went to a slightly different full-court coverage, like a soft, soft press, so they didn’t get a run because they can actually run,” Krzyzewski said. “Then we started – we were going to switch from 1 to 5. Mark (Williams) has improved so much over the year in his lateral movement that he can stay up front, and that’s what he did.”

Duke needed this. They had to push. It had to be tested for its toughness. They knew it was coming. One stop wouldn’t work. Not two or three. It had to be consistent. MSU was coached too well, too deep, too plentiful with scorers and slashers smoking some blood.

The situation at the Bon Secours Wellness Arena was immediate and urgent, and Duke knew it. But they didn’t bring up the looming possibility that this game and this season could end.

“Losing was never an issue,” Wendell Moore Jr. said.

Over the course of five minutes, Duke defended the state of Michigan with 2-of-9 shootings and a turnover.

“You’re not going to talk about losing or you’re going to lose,” Krzyzewski said.

Paolo Banchero showed some of his best on both sides. He started Duke’s run with a lay-up. A few possessions later, Banchero took Hauser off the dribble and backed him. A move between bully-ball and top pick-in-the-draft stuff, Banchero kissed his shot softly off the glass, giving Duke a 75-74 lead with 2:05 left. It would never trace again. Hauser was blocked by Banchero on a spin-to-left attempt on ensuing possession. A huge moment for Banchero. A definite block. Duke had seized the momentum.

“I knew once we got our foot in the door, there was no looking back from that point on,” Moore said, later adding that once the team got together during the under-four timeout, “we just looked into each other’s eyes, and we knew we wouldn’t lose.”

Banchero had a block, Williams had a block, Moore had a bargain. And Jeremy Roach hit the three-pointer that gave Duke a four-point lead with 1:16 left. That ball that went in as the shot clock went down was the biggest shot of the second half. It put Duke at four and seemed to startle the state of Michigan. Roach was the man who once couldn’t play Griffin. Stepped up. shone.

“He wanted that ball,” said Krzyzewski. “He wanted that ball in. It was some of the best rides I’ve seen as a Duke coach, really, especially in a pressure situation.”

Another great defensive play followed the ensuing possession, when Moore stole a scattered pass from Christie. He was there and Christie, the freshman, didn’t even see Moore.

“I think they did everything in the last five minutes,” Izzo said.

He is right. Duke was 5 for 5 from the field in the last five minutes; his only misses came on the foul line. When the clock ran out, Krzyzewski and his staff couldn’t contain their smiles, their relief, and their joy. There was easy breathing. A second victory had been won here at Greenville, which was not the case five years ago when No. 2 Duke was upset by No. 7 South Carolina. Krzyzewski hadn’t looked this happy in weeks. It almost felt like losing to the regional semi-finals would have been an embarrassing end to an unparalleled career – and for good reason.

“Look, I’m 75,” Krzyzewski said. “To have moments like that, you have to make fun of me. Really, how damn lucky can you be to be in it? And I want to share it. I don’t want to sit down and say, ‘You’re enjoying it.’ I want to be a little bit of the party. That’s the fun I have, I’ve had 47 years. Today was one of the really good days.”

By the way, what a way for K to win career #1,200. He is also now a shy of 100 NCAA Tournament wins. Both include his, of course. And may turn out to be forever. This is also his 26th Sweet 16 trip, another record.

Krzyzewski got emotional in his opening statement to the media, as Banchero, Trevor Keels, Moore, Roach and Williams sat next to him.

“I’m incredibly proud of my boys,” Krzyzewski said with a quiver in his tone. “This is — this was — you were amazing, man. I’m really proud to be your coach. It had nothing to do with coaching those last four or five minutes. It was all about heart and togetherness . They followed their hearts, and God bless them. We’re in the Sweet 16.”

The final confrontation between Krzyzewski and Izzo was thrilling. Duke pulled out late, but it was a questionable game 39 out of 40 minutes. The potential was there that it would all end for Duke and K, for the state of Michigan to spoil. Instead, Krzyzewski’s players showed up and delivered a performance that was as captivating and compelling as the entire season. Seeing them on that trajectory had to be reminded that when Duke finds that zone, it’s just as dangerous as any team in the country.

San Francisco is waiting.

Leave a Comment