After the public celebration ended from Duke’s 77-68 win against St. John’s – the 1,000th win of Mike Krzyzewski’s 40-year career – the legendary coach found one of his first superstars, Danny Ferry, in a back hallway of Madison Square Garden.
“Hell of a win,” Ferry, the 1989 national player of the year, said with a smile.
“It was one of the most surprising wins,” Krzyzewski said, with a sly grin, full of relief.
Yes, it would have been hard to predict a 2-3 zone, with a back line of Marshall Plumlee, Jahlil Okafor and Matt Jones would play an essential role in Duke’s come-from-behind victory. In the numerous interviews Krzyzewski gave after the game, he was quick to credit his pair of unsung day-savers.
“Plumlee and Jones just gave us – they gave us so many plays,” Krzyzewski said. “Matt just played with amazing heart. It seemed to bring even more heart out of Jah and Quinn (Cook) and Tyus (Jones).
“We played great in the last 10 minutes. I’m not sure I’ve ever been a part of a game like that. It’s kind of nuts, huh? You’re involved with 1,300 games or whatever I’ve been involved in, and to have one that’s different, that’s what makes the game so good.”
With 8 minutes, 35 seconds remaining in the game, St. John’s Sir’Dominic Pointer connected on a jump shot in the middle of the lane to put the Red Storm up 61-51, its largest lead. That shot gave Pointer 21 points. But he wouldn’t make another basket. St. John’s would only score seven more points.
And No. 5 Duke (17-2) scored 18 of the next 20 points.
“In the two games that we lost,” Cook said, referencing back-to-back losses to N.C. State and Miami, “when we got down double digits, I felt like we got tight. Coach just stayed positive, stayed with us.
“It was a 40-minute dogfight out there, and we wanted to get this one for Coach.”
St. John’s played physical all game – there were several hard fouls that left the Blue Devils slow to get up – but once the momentum turned in Duke’s favor down the stretch, it was the Blue Devils making tough plays.
Cook, Tyus Jones and Okafor all made three traditional three-point plays in the span of four possessions, finishing through contact and converting at the free throw line to bring Duke within 61-60. Cook followed with a 3-pointer to give Duke its first lead since late in the first half.
Later in the run, Tyus Jones was hammered on a 3-point shot attempt, taking an arm to the head and falling to the ground. But he stood up and made all three free throws, giving Duke a 69-63 advantage.
Two possessions later, his 3-pointer took the last gasp out of St. John’s, putting Duke up 72-65 with 1:15 remaining.
As the ball started dropping for Duke, its unconventional defense tightened up. Right before the Red Storm took its 10-point lead, Krzyzewski subbed in Plumlee to play the power forward position. Matt Jones already was in to play small forward.
“I said, ‘let’s put them in,’ and we made a mistake right away, and I said, ‘we’re going to lose by 30,’ ” Krzyzewski said. “And then, boom. It just – boom. It was great.”
Plumlee said he had played that wing position in the zone defense for “one or two” plays at practice – and that’s it. It was something he learned on the fly. Plumlee initially took to the left block, and that worked. So when Matt Jones tried to take that side on a possession, Plumlee was quick to correct him.
“I didn’t want to mess with it tonight, so when Matt tried to slide me over, I said, ‘not tonight,’ ” Plumlee said while laughing. “Maybe we can work on it in practice, but not right now.”
Krzyzewski and his players had said all the right things leading up to the game – it wasn’t about him getting win No. 1000. Rather, it was about this Duke team getting win No. 17. And some of the players kept repeating the party line in the locker room after the game.
But not Matt Jones.
“Yeah, we talked about getting win No. 17, but in Madison Square Garden, in this game, on this stage, we had to get it done for Coach,” he said, adding that it was a relief the pursuit for 1,000 was over.
Krzyzewski was relived as well.
“I’m glad it’s over,” Krzyzewski said, the relief evident on his face. “I’m honored, don’t get me wrong. I’m the lucky guy. I’m the lucky guy that has been at two great institutions, West Point and Duke. I’ve had unbelievable support.
“You get lucky. So I share today with all my former players and my assistants. They’re happy. My team was really happy. Although at halftime, it wasn’t happy. And that’s the crazy thing about the game. You would not think we were going to win. And then, after it was going, you would not think that we could lose.”
As Krzyzewski left the news conference, he made his way back to the Duke locker room. That’s where he saw Ferry, one of several former players waiting for him. Kenny Dennard, a senior on his first Duke team in 1980-81, was there. Billy King, the 1988 national defensive player of the year, was there. Several members of the 2010 national championship team – Brian Zoubek, Mason Plumlee, Lance Thomas and Todd Zafirovski – were waiting in the hallway as well.
Those are the people Krzyzewski wanted to spend his moment with most. And so, with the game and on-court celebration long over, the former players, Duke staffers and family members all disappeared into the locker room, taking a private second with the man who has publicly been at the center of the college basketball universe for the better part of four decades.