As good as he is at blocking things, particularly shots, Utah center Jakob Poeltl could not block out the noise and frenzy that came with playing against Duke at Madison Square Garden. Nor did he want to. He felt like the proverbial little kid at Christmas in a game that was worthy of March.
The Garden was rocking as the game went back, forth and into overtime until Utah ended it Saturday with a 77-75 victory against the defending national champion — a team that beat Utah in the 2015 Sweet 16 on the way to the title.
Poeltl, a 20-year-old sophomore from Vienna, Austria, has vivid memories of that creditable 57-50 defeat in Portland on March 19, a game in which he outscored and outplayed NBA lottery pick Jahlil Okafor. He will have more good recollections of this game in New York City at holiday time. Poeltl was a force down the stretch as the Utes overcame Duke’s 14-0 second-half run and made him feel like he was in a remake of “Miracle on 34th Street.”
Before fouling out during the overtime, he had 19 points and 14 rebounds. He was credited with three blocks, but that doesn’t take into account the many shots that he altered.
“It was unbelievable, especially toward the end when both sides’ fans really, really woke up and it seemed like the whole gym was on fire. It’s amazing to play here,” he said.
The opponent had something to do with that. Duke brings mystique, and many vocal fans (attendance was 13,174), even though it was without injured big man Amile Jefferson. And top scorer Grayson Allen was getting over the flu, and it showed in his shooting (3-for-18). Still, the Blue Devils are loaded with the likes of blue chip freshmen Brandon Ingram (15 points) and Luke Kennard (24 points).
Kennard brought Duke back to life when it looked hopelessly lost in the overtime, scoring eight points in an 18-second span, including a four-point play. His team forced a turnover with six seconds left and Ingram had a chance to tie, but missed a layup in the final second.
“I felt bad for the kid, I mean, really bad,” his coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “It’s not his fault we lost. A really good player wants the ball in that position and when it doesn’t happen, he beats himself up. But you know, in that last minute or 45 seconds, our guys did some incredible things to put us in the position to win. We had a chance to win this game and we didn’t, they had a chance and they did.”
Utah basically felt the same way in March. It is true, as Utah high scorer Kyle Kuzma (21 points) said, “We’re a different team and they’re a different team, too.”
Still, you couldn’t help reflect on their Sweet 16 matchup. Poeltl said, “To see them go all the way kind of gave me a feeling like, well we lost against the champion.”
He worked hard on his game after that, becoming one of the most improved players in the country. Krzyzewski said: “I thought he was really good last year. He’s a great rim protector and he’s got good hands and he’s a team player.”
Plus, he has the confidence of having a big game on the biggest stage. Poeltl called it a “very, very emotional win” and added: “At the end of the day, for me it’s what’s happening on the basketball court. But this is one of the greatest experiences of my life.”