Duke is blessed with future first-round picks and a hall of fame coach, so the underdog label rarely applies.
However, the Blue Devils demonstrated ample resolve, along with fearsome talent, to fight their way to the school’s 20th ACC championship. No. 5 seed Duke erased an eight-point second-half deficit to defeat No. 3 seed Notre Dame 75-69 Saturday night at the Barclays Center.
“We’ve won, this is our 14th, but this one’s so different,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “I can’t say, ‘Well, it was like this one or that’ – no, it was not like anything.”
Duke (27-8) became the first team to win the ACC tournament by winning four games in four days, beating No. 12 seed Clemson, No. 4 seed Louisville, No. 1 seed North Carolina and finally Notre Dame (25-9).
It has been an unusual season for the Blue Devils, who have encountered injuries, the controversy surrounding star guard Grayson Allen and the absence of Krzyzewski due to back surgery. But Duke ended a six-year ACC title drought (the second-longest of Krzyzewski’s tenure) by showing its best form of the season and destabilizing its opponents with second-half surges fueled by defense and the perimeter shooting of guard Luke Kennard, named the tournament MVP.
With his 14th ACC title, breaking a tie with North Carolina legend Dean Smith.
Five observations from the game
When the game was won
With Duke ahead 68-67 at the one-minute mark, the Blue Devils had the ball but the shot clock was running down. Duke forward Jayson Tatum drove and then passed out to guard Matt Jones, who spotted up for a 3-pointer and a four-point lead with 48 seconds to play. It was Jones’ only basket of the game on two attempts. Jones, in fact, had not scored a basket since the second-round win over Clemson on Thursday.
“They’ve made really big shots to win the thing,” Notre Dame coach Mike Brey said.
Notre Dame scored on the ensuing possession to cut the lead to 71-69, and Jones apparently stepped on the end line as he inbounded the ball, which should have returned the ball to Notre Dame with 32 seconds remaining. However, there was no call, putting the Irish in a situation of having to foul.
“A lot of commotion, though, at that time,” Brey said. “We certainly could have used some help right there to get the ball back because then Jones hits the three.”
Tatum was phenomenal down the stretch, making plays at both ends of the floor to help the Blue Devils reel in the championship. Just under the two-minute mark with Duke ahead 66-65, Notre Dame guard Steve Vasturia drove to the basket for the go-ahead score. Tatum came on help defense to block Vasturia’s shot. He won the loose ball and then rushed the length of the court for a layup and a three-point lead.
With Duke ahead 71-69 with 26 seconds left and the Blue Devils inbounding from midcourt, Tatum bolted to the basket and hauled in Jones’ pass. His dunk and and-one free throw put the game out of reach.
Tatum, 6-foot-9, is long, can handle the ball, can hit from the perimeter and, in Brey’s appraisal, has imposing size. In 39 minutes, he finished with 19 points (on 7-for-11 shooting) with eight rebounds, both team highs.
“If he’s not the No. 1 pick (in the NBA draft), I’ve got to see the guy who’s the No. 1 pick,” Brey said.
Big-time player II
Duke had to overcome a whale of a game by Notre Dame forward Bonzie Colson. The first-team All-ACC pick dropped 29 points on 12-for-21 shooting (including 2-for-3 from 3-point range) and fought for nine rebounds, five offensive.
He scored six points in an 11-2 run that gave Notre Dame a 56-48 lead with 11:35 to play that proved the Irish’s largest lead of the game. He made a most memorable play after turning the ball over when he leapt to catch an off-target pass and tried to keep it inbounds. Duke guard Grayson Allen stole it, but Colson hustled back to take it away from Allen. His layup try was off, but V.J. Beachem followed it with a putback dunk.
He gutted out the final few minutes after twisting his ankle with a little more than eight minutes to play while going for a rebound. Brey said that he was fine and will be 100 percent for the NCAA tournament.
“It’s one of the great performances in (ACC) championship game history,” Brey said. “Now, our fans don’t know about the history of the ACC championship game. We’ve only been in the league four years. But what he did willing us and keeping us in it and making big plays and chasing down loose balls, it’s a great performance.”
No. 1 seed?
While the bracket experts have concluded that Villanova, North Carolina, Gonzaga and Kansas are locked in as the top seeds, Duke can make a pretty good case to be considered.
The Blue Devils are now 12-6 over RPI top-50 teams, more wins than any other team in the country. (Villanova, though, is 11-2.) They concluded the season by beating, in succession, No. 7 (RPI) Louisville, No. 5 North Carolina and No. 23 Notre Dame. They’ve taken two of three from one of the presumptive No. 1 seeds, North Carolina.
As of Friday, ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi had Duke as a No. 2 seed. Notre Dame was slotted as a No. 4 seed. They’re two of 10 ACC teams in Lunardi’s field, including Wake Forest and Syracuse among the “last four in.”
In the record books
Duke made history in a couple ways with the win. The Blue Devils became the first team to win the ACC tournament by winning four games in four days and also became the first No. 5 seed to win it. Five teams had won as the No. 6 seed.
Krzyzewski acknowledged that his team was exhausted by the grind. He said that he tried to counter that by not calling a play for the final 10 minutes of the game. Instead of set plays, he had the Blue Devils run their motion offense.
“Basically, we thought that they would assert themselves more,” he said. “They own motion more than if we run a play. I know they were really tired, and so by taking ownership and attacking like that, they made it work. We’ve done that in each of the last three games but not as long as (Saturday).”
Further, the Blue Devils came back from 12 down to Louisville, down 13 to Louisville and down eight to Notre Dame, all in the second half. They even were down two in the second half to Clemson.
Krzyzewski said it wasn’t so much finding motivation to persevere, but toughness.
“They’re tired,” he said. “The other team is really good. How are we going to be tough right now? And they figured that out. And they figured it out for four straight days.