The road No. 14 Duke impressively traveled to win its 20th ACC tournament championship was longer than any taken in league history.
Never before had a team won four games in four days to take home the league’s top men’s basketball prize.
“My team has taken me on this journey this week that you could not plan,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said.
The fifth-seeded Blue Devils (27-8) won one game, then another and another and another. They overcame double-digit, second-half deficits to beat Louisville and North Carolina. They closed out the title game with a championship-level finishing kick that erased Notre Dame’s seven-point second-half lead to defeat the Irish 75-69 at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center.
Human nature said fatigue had to set in at some point. Duke simply didn’t care.
“We showed a lot of fight and togetherness to come back,” Duke junior guard Grayson Allen said. “We didn’t play tired and that was an amazing thing for us. It was big. When you play with a lot of emotion and heart you don’t ever feel tired.”
Maybe it’s because Duke played through so much negative emotion throughout the regular season. Maybe that’s why the Blue Devils had so much emotion to spend in a positive direction when things turned around in Brooklyn for their best stretch of basketball this season.
“We have been through a lot of tough things – things that don’t normally happen for a team,” Allen said.
The junior guard knows exactly what he speaks of. His suspension for tripping an opposing player and his four technical fouls were part of the negativity Duke had to fight through. So, too, were his hamstring, toe and ankle injuries.
So was Krzyzewski’s seven-game absence due to back surgery. So was Jayson Tatum, Harry Giles and Marques Bolden not playing until December due to foot and leg injuries.
Twice Duke suffered three losses in a four-game stretch. That, Allen said, played a direct role in the Blue Devils having the stamina to win four games in four days in Brooklyn.
“If we weren’t playing well in games,” Allen said, “we’d have four really hard days of practice. We’re conditioned for this. We’re prepared for this.”
The Blue Devils beat three ranked teams over the final three days of the tournament, a feat they won’t have to replicate in the NCAA tournament when teams always get at least one day off between games.
That doesn’t mean this historic performance is without value when Duke begins NCAA tournament play either Thursday or Friday.
“For this tournament,” Krzyzewski said, “we said, let’s just win one game, and OK, we won it. Let’s win one game. And today was the championship game. And hopefully, we can take that same attitude into the next tournament.”
Duke’s togetherness is forged by those trials by fire earlier in the season. That’s why the Blue Devils erased a 12-point second-half deficit to beat Louisville 81-77 on Thursday. That’s why UNC’s 13-point lead disappeared when Duke beat the Tar Heels 93-83 on Friday night.
Duke led Notre Dame by nine points in the first half only to see the Irish storm out to a 56-48 lead with 11:35 to play behind Bonzie Colson’s great play inside.
But, when faced with a chance to see a game and a title slip away, Duke bonded together.
“I thought they sped the game up in the second half, and it kind of knocked us back,” Duke senior Amile Jefferson said. “But all our guys stayed poised. No one was ever like rattled. That’s sometimes when you see when things like that happen. You see guys splinter. But after the time-out, we huddled, and we were strong. That’s why I was really proud of my guys because everyone was strong today.”
Duke made two of three shots over the second half, shooting 66.7 percent for the final 20 minutes and 60.8 percent for the game.
Once again, multiple scorers made Duke tough to handle. Jayson Tatum had 19, Luke Kennard 16, Jefferson 14 and Allen 10.
With that, the ACC championship belonged to Duke for the first time since 2011. The team ranked No. 1 in the nation in the preseason has its first banner with plenty of momentum toward earning another one or two.
“I’ve done as much as I could to help our team win,” said Kennard, the tournament MVP, “to bring success to our team, to this program, and I’m blessed to be able to share that with these guys. We’re happy right now, and we’re looking forward to our next step this season.”