It wasn’t until the final buzzer that Derryck Thornton felt confident about Duke’s 71-64 victory over Yale. Grayson Allen was a little quicker with the exhale – by 8 seconds.
That’s not typically the reaction in a game in which a team had been leading by 27 at one point, but that was Duke’s reality. That’s what happens when that 27-point lead is cut to three.
Duke was up 46-19 with 2:53 left in the first half. Then it was 54-47 with 11:38 to go. The game was as close as 67-64 with 33 seconds left and Brandon Ingram at the free-throw line shooting one-and-one (he made both).
“Especially in the second half when they make their run, you can definitely feel the weight of the world on you,” Matt Jones said. “Fans not even from there, you can feel their opinions coming in, like, oh, I want to see Duke lose.”
In the first half, it was hard to imagine Duke losing (and the building was churchly silent because of Duke’s lead). Allen, a sophomore guard, scored 22 first-half points and made 4-of-6 3-point shots – one from NBA distance with Yale guard Trey Phills right on him – and the Blue Devils were cruising.
But autopilot in March proved to be unwise.
Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski recognized his team backing off late in the first half, and he tried to infuse them with his own fire and energy. The 69-year-old coach jumped up and punched the air on several occasions, yelling at the Blue Devils in attempts to get them to keep pushing. At halftime, with Duke up 48-25, Krzyzewski told them the Yale run was coming. He told them that Yale guards Anthony Dallier and Nick Victor were going to stop missing open looks.
And Dallier and Victor hit back-to-back 3s that brought on a memorable Krzyzewski timeout with 14:43 left and the lead at 54-38.
First, Krzyzewski picked up and slammed down a chair, twice, as his team huddled around. Senior center Marshall Plumlee grabbed and shook freshman guard Luke Kennard, Thornton and Brandon Ingram on the bench and appeared to give an intense (supportive) backhand to Krzyzewski. The Blue Devils were yelling at each other to stay calm (without a hint of irony).
“Screaming stay calm, because you really need to stay calm,” Allen said. “In that kind of situation, when the other team starts to come back, you hear the crowd getting louder and louder, guys can get nervous and tight because there’s a lot of pressure on the game.”
Krzyzewski also reminded the Blue Devils of the Notre Dame loss in the ACC tournament quarterfinals, which featured Duke blowing a 16-point second half lead. But instead, Duke found positives to take from the experience instead of entering a here-we-go-again downward spiral.
“We’ve had to learn a lot from losses and situations where we could have done better,” Junior guard Matt Jones said. “We definitely take those things and don’t forget them.”
As fiery as that timeout was, it didn’t immediately solve any issues. The back-to-back 3s that preceded the timeout were the start of a 15-0 Yale run that would take Duke’s lead down to seven, 54-47, with 11:38 to go. The Blue Devils were having issues with the Bulldogs’ zone press and looked tight on every pass and shot.
But Yale stopped hitting shots at an incredible rate. The Bulldogs made 9 of their first 13 second-half shots but then went 3 for its next 14. Duke’s switch to a 1-3-1 zone helped with that. Meanwhile, Allen and Ingram hit enough shots to keep Yale at bay. And once the Bulldogs stopped scoring quickly, time just ran out on Yale.
By the final timeout with eight seconds left, Krzyzewski was telling his team how proud he was of them. It was quite an emotional swing from earlier. But when the final buzzer sounded, the Blue Devils had ensured that they would be one of the last 16 teams standing this season.
For that reason, Allen said his emotion afterward was happiness, not relief.
“I never doubted,” he said, “That we were going to win the game.”