SAN FRANCISCO — Toward the end of Duke’s 78-73 win over Texas Tech on Thursday night in the Sweet 16, the Blue Devils fans who’d swarmed Chase Center were suddenly unsure if they were witnessing the continuation of a career or the end of one.
In a competitive game that featured 11 ties and 13 lead changes, the fans realized they might be watching the final minutes of Mike Krzyzewski’s tenure, with Duke battling a team that entered the night with the nation’s top defense.
But Krzyzewski listened to his players late in the game when they told him it was time to go back to a man-to-man defense after a zone had disrupted Texas Tech’s flow in the second half. His trust in them helped the program secure a trip to the Elite Eight and a matchup against Arkansas.
“It was like a Catholic boys’ choir,” Krzyzewski said about his players’ collective call for the second-half tweak. “It was a chorus. They all said it. They all said it, and they said it with enthusiasm: ‘We want to do this. We want to go man.’ God bless them. What a great group, these kids. They’ve grown up so much in the last 12 days. It’s such a joy. It’s an amazing thing.”
The change seemed to confuse the Red Raiders, and, more importantly, it helped Duke regain its confidence. With the win, Duke extended Krzyzewski’s final season with key decisions and clutch plays down the stretch.
Late in the second half, Duke freshman Paolo Banchero (22 points) countered Texas Tech guard Kevin McCullar’s 3-pointer with a shot from beyond the arc that gave Duke a 69-68 lead with 2:57 seconds to play. Jeremy Roach (15 points, five assists) made clutch plays, including consecutive jumpers to extend the Blue Devils’ lead in the final minutes, and kept the energy going when he verbally sparred with a few Texas Tech players. Mark Williams (16 points, eight rebounds) played above the rim in the second half.
The Blue Devils scored on 12 of their final 15 possessions and made their final eight shots from the field.
“All year, in the biggest moments, we’ve always stepped up, and there’s no bigger moment than this,” Banchero said after the game. “I don’t know about these guys, but I’ve never played in a basketball game like that. When you are out there … it’s not like you’re even thinking. You’re just playing to win, and you’re playing extremely hard. So when you are doing that, you are not afraid of the moment as a team.”
Duke has reached the Elite Eight in each of its past three NCAA tournament appearances (2018, 2019, 2022).
Thursday night’s win unfolded in a place where Krzyzewski had not found much success. Entering the game, he had lost his three previous NCAA tournament games on the West Coast. On top of that, Texas Tech was a trendy pick to stop Duke.
But the win on Thursday also highlighted one of the keys to Krzyzewski’s success: He is not afraid to adjust.
When Duke went to a zone defense in the second half, it seemed to slow Texas Tech, making it more timid as it tried to process the change. McCullar and Bryson Williams combined to score 38 points for the Red Raiders, but the defensive change also made them think twice about every shot.
Afterward, Krzyzewski said the zone defense “saved” the Blue Devils. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Duke used a zone defense about half the time in the second half, and the Red Raiders failed to score on any of their first six possessions against the zone. Texas Tech shot just 33% from the field against the zone on Thursday compared with 44% against man-to-man defense.
Throughout the season, schools around the country celebrated Krzyzewski’s career. But he admitted Wednesday that the weight of his farewell tour had impacted his young team. Duke had battled Michigan State in the second round to advance to the Sweet 16 and then needed a comeback in the second half of Thursday’s game.
With a minute to go, however, Banchero and his teammates slapped the floor in unison, a Duke tradition. Their energy had changed. And they used it to secure the win and a trip to the Elite Eight on Saturday.
Krzyzewski said it was a definitive moment for the team.
“The slapping the floor … what the hell? Why not?” Krzyzewski said after the game. “Our guys really wanted that because it’s kind of like a ‘cross the bridge to the brotherhood’ [moment]. They can now say they did that. Hopefully, they can say that again, at least, on Saturday.”
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism