Duke has finally become the March masher everyone was expecting when it began the season with a No. 1 national ranking.
There have been plenty of moments this season when it looked like the Blue Devils would never realize the potential that everyone saw then, maybe even end up one of the bigger disappointments. However now, with four wins in four nights, including Saturday’s 75-69 ACC title game victory over Notre Dame before 18,109 at Barclays Center, they have rounded into NCAA championship form.
They are the first team to take the ACC crown with four wins in four nights.
“It’s amazing — all the teams we beat the last few days are Final Four-caliber teams,” coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “I’m proud.”
Duke had to come back from double-digit second-half deficits against Louisville and then Carolina the previous two nights and found themselves down once again, by eight with about 11 minutes to play. Krzyzewski said, “I thought we were dead in the water,” but, just as they had in those other games, that’s when the Devils started to swing the tide.
Amile Jefferson had six points and Frank Jackson had five points and two assists in a 15-4 run to take a 63-60 lead on a Luke Kennard jumper in the lane. Notre Dame would tie it at 65-all but then freshman Jayson Tatum took over. He scored six points in the final 2:02 as Duke closed the game with a 10-4 run. A Matt Jones three-pointer with 48 seconds left for a 71-67 lead proved the back-breaker.
“It was tough to play four games in four days,” said Kennard, the tournament MVP. “It can be hard. But we’re a tough team. We showed it throughout the tournament and the way we battled back these last three days from being down in the second half, it shows how mentally tough and physically tough we are.”
Krzyzewski said of the final minutes: “We didn’t call plays, we just said ‘you make plays.’ When you give ownership to a team, they don’t get tired because it is theirs. They aren’t playing for anybody else.”
It is Duke’s 20th ACC championship and first since 2011. It is Krzyzewski’s 14th title as coach and he passes North Carolina’s Dean Smith for first on that list.
Tatum had 19 points, Kennard 16 points and Jefferson 14 points for Duke (27-8).
Bonzie Colson scored 29 and V.J. Beachem 15 to pace the Fighting Irish (25-9).
Colson was in the middle of things when Notre Dame made the move to a lead. He scored six straight points to ignite an 11-2 run for a 56-48 lead on Beachem’s dunk with about 11 minutes to play.
Duke was anointed with the preseason No. 1 ranking largely because the team’s foundation had been augmented with a feted recruiting class including Tatum, Harry Giles and Marques Bolden. Then the season turned into a melodrama beginning with all three starting the season unable to play with injuries. Grayson Allen had to be suspended for a game for his proclivity for tripping opponents. Then Krzyzewski had to miss a month for back surgery.
The freshmen got back, but there was little in the way of chemistry. A home loss to North Carolina State seemed a breaking point and Krzyzewski called a team meeting at his home and stripped the team of wearing their gear on campus and barred them from their locker room. This soul-searching moment proved valuable as Duke finally started coming together and won the next seven games.
What they’ve done lately — beat Florida State before the tournament, then North Carolina, Louisville and Notre Dame — has the Blue Devils looking like a very tough out in the NCAA Tournament.
“We’ve faced so much adversity as a team,” Kennard said. “But now we’re taking a step forward together. We’re becoming the team we want to be and I think there’s still room for us to get better.”