DURHAM—First there was the late game, coast-to-coast layup attempt that resulted in a foul and one made free throw to save Duke from an unthinkable loss to Vermont back on Nov. 24, which feels like a few seasons ago at this point.
Then there was the late-game drive at Notre Dame, which resulted in a turnover, the ballhandler too out of control and too far under the basket to get off a shot attempt in the Blue Devils’ two-point loss at Notre Dame on Jan. 4.
That was followed by a no-call on a tomahawk dunk attempt in the waning seconds of overtime up at Syracuse, as Rakeem Christmas was award a block, the contact on the attempt be damned. Duke lost that game by two points, too.
Last week there was the straight-up-and-down defense, with four fouls, on the last-second hook shot from Maryland’s Charles Mitchell, the one that hung on the rim before rolling off as Duke pulled out the two-point win.
And then, Saturday, Rodney Hood again found himself in position to make the crucial play for Duke, the one coming in the last seconds that would be replayed over and over and given outsized importance because it happened to fall right before the final buzzer. Hood slid into position as Syracuse’s C.J. Fair went for the baseline drive. There was contact between the two, Fair’s shot fell in, and the whistle was blown—charge on Fair, no basket, cue the Jim Boeheim eruption and ejection in Duke’s 66-60 win over No. 1 Syracuse.
"I’ve been in [controversial plays] five or six times at the end of the game this year," Hood said afterward. "I came up short sometimes and I came up big sometimes. That’s part of being one of the best players on the team – you have to take that chance every time.
"I’m starting to enjoy it."
When Hood was named a captain at the beginning of the year, the hope was that the platform would give him the confidence to take ownership of the team, something he quickly embraced. Back in Duke’s second game of the year, while Jabari Parker was putting on a show for his hometown in the eventual 94-83 loss to Kansas, Hood quietly went 3-for-8 from the field, a virtual non-factor on offense. He recognized right away that wasn’t going to get it down.
"I’ve got to be more assertive," he said in that postgame locker room on Nov. 12. "I can’t let the game come to me and just hope for opportunities. I’ve got to go take them and be more aggressive. It’s a learning period for me, too, being at the head of the team."
When Duke has needed a play at the end of a tight game, Mike Krzyzewski has called Hood’s number. He did against Vermont. And he did it again at Notre Dame.
And while the Blue Devils were plenty upset about the no call at Syracuse because of its impact on the game—Hood goes to the line with Duke down one with 13 seconds left, perhaps a different team wins that game—they were also upset because they felt Hood was robbed of a career-defining moment, perhaps an all-American moment, one that would be replayed over and over and reminisced about for years to come.
And so, on Saturday, with Fair’s charge, Krzyzewski felt that the mystical basketball powers that be, three weeks later, did right by Hood.
"The basketball gods, they’re the best. I mean, they put Rodney in the two plays," Krzyzewski said. "The dunk that was maybe a foul up there, and the charge, which I think was a charge. Anyway, he was in the play, both times. One turned great for us, and one didn’t turn out great for us. Now both teams are 1-1, and Hood’s the guy. This is a signature game for him.
"I’m really happy for him. He’s such a good kid and player. He’s been in foul trouble. And today, he was center stage, and he came through magnificently. Really happy for him. So deserving."
Hood did more than just draw a charge. Duke ran its offense through him, sticking him in the high post, in the middle of the zone, and letting him distribute or drive from there. According to ESPN Stats and Info, Duke shot 56 percent against the 2-3 zone after the ball entered the paint, compared to just 29 percent when the ball stayed on the outside. Hood played a big part in that.
"f I have to single out one kid, it’s Hood," Krzyzewski said. A man’s game, to borrow one of his preferred descriptors.
***At Duke, every game is treated like a life-and-death affair, so there’s no doubt knocking off No. 1 Syracuse is important to the Blue Devils. But beyond their pride, just how important is a late-February game, really? Three games behind Virginia with three games to go in ACC play, it’s not like the win catapulted the Blue Devils back in contention for the regular-season title.
"To me, it’s great preparation for the (NCAA) Tournament," Krzyzewski said of playing in Big Games like Duke-Syracuse. Because if you’re fortunate, you may win an epic type of game. The first time we won a national championship (in 1991), we beat Vegas. They had won 45 in a row.
"When we walked into our hotel, it was a Holiday Inn at the airport—they really rubbed it up for us—it was packed. Everybody was delirious, like we already won. And, to me, that was our greatest national championship, because we had to overcome an epic win. A lot of people today would say that we won the national championship that year when we beat Vegas. Just like a lot of people think we won the next year when we beat Kentucky. And you have to get past those things if you’re going to win."