GREENSBORO — Surrounded by a throng of reporters, Rasheed Sulaimon stood up at a request to shake his hand. It came from Gene Banks, who was a senior on Mike Krzyzewskis first Duke team in 1980-81.
Thank you, Mr. Banks, thank you so much, Sulaimon said in the locker room after Dukes 75-67 win over N.C. State, sending the Blue Devils to the ACC tournament championship game against Virginia. Are you going to be here tomorrow?
Ive got to be here tomorrow. You made it so, Banks said.
The Blue Devils will be making their 13th title game appearance in the past 17 years, going for a league-record 20th league championship. The history of the Duke program is inescapable and this group has chosen to visibly embrace it.
For the fourth time this year, and second consecutive day, the Blue Devils sported their Nike throwback jerseys, designed to pay homage to the 1991 and 1992 national championship teams. Theyre not an exact replica of the early 90s look Duke was an Adidas school back then but the players have clutched the vintage spirit.
We just wanted to channel that energy from those old Duke teams, Tyler Thornton said. When we played in this jersey vs. Maryland, we played very tough, very hard and very together.
After the March 5 loss at Wake Forest, the Blue Devils collectively decided to wear them for the home game against North Carolina another win. Two games in the jerseys here in Greensboro have produced two more wins, keeping the Blue Devils playing until Sunday for the first time since 2011, Thorntons freshman year.
And the two plays Duke kept pointing to after the game Thornton steal from T.J. Warren that resulted in an Amile Jefferson dunk and a Parker rebound and dunk over Warren were vintage Duke plays, both game changing.
When Thornton managed to strip Warren of the ball and advance it up to Jefferson, the sophomores dunk put Duke up by nine, 54-45, with 13:50 left in the game. Parkers play came later, down the stretch when Duke was struggling to hit free throws and close the Wolfpack out. The Blue Devils were on a 2-for-7 run from the line when Rodney Hood missed the front end of a one-and-one. Parker ripped down the rebound, pivoted, and dunked over Warren, restoring Dukes double-digit lead with 2:21 to go.
Hood was standing outside Dukes locker room recounting both when a reporter noticed he had a bit of blood on his shorts.
It was a battle, Hood said. Thats what you want in this type of game. A battle, youre going up against the ACC Player of the Year, and theyre hitting every shot, scoring, going tit for tat, and one team is going to have to buckle down. We did the better job of that.
Dukes defense did clamp down in the second half, after N.C. State came out and shot a brisk 66.7 percent in the opening 20 minutes. Hood was the primary defender on Warren, who finished 10-of-22 from the field for 21 points, one more than Parker, who was slightly more efficient, shooting 8-of-15. Duke threw double and triple teams at Warren over the course of the final half, when he went more than 12 minutes between baskets.
All year (and every year), Krzyzewski has focused and talked about the teams defense, despite their plethora of offensive weapons. Saturday afternoon, he said he might have overcoached in preparation for Warren, deciding during the course of the game to let Hood defend him the way he preferred, eliminating some of N.C. States uncontested backdoor cuts.
The result was arguably Dukes best defensive half of the season, setting the Blue Devils up for their first shot at a postseason championship.
You dream about this as a kid, Hood said. You want to play in a championship game with the whole country watching, playing against a great team.