Mike Krzyzewski probably wasn’t the only one saying “Holy mackerel” after this one.
For the second straight game, those words were among the first out of Krzyzewski’s mouth afterward, and Duke’s future opponents could be forgiven for saying the same thing, not in amazement like Krzyzewski but despair, the way the Blue Devils have played in Brooklyn.
Duke’s Four Horsemen have finally figured out how to ride together, and they have brought Duke to the brink of its first ACC title since 2011. Friday’s 93-83 win over North Carolina came on the heels of Thursday’s win over Louisville, knocking off a pair of Final Four contenders in a 48-hour stretch.
This is the Duke everyone – including Duke – thought we would see from the beginning, and it only took six months for the pieces to fall into place. Luke Kennard, Jayson Tatum, Grayson Allen and Frank Jackson combined for 77 points Friday and 75 of Duke’s 81 on Thursday, the grand plan finally coming to fruition.
There will be many sweeping conclusions drawn from this game, which is merely the nature of such a high-profile game with such dramatic shifts of momentum and fortune. Harry Giles will be anointed as Duke’s savior. North Carolina’s mental toughness will be questioned. Roy Williams’ philosophy on timeouts will be debated (yet again). And on and on.
The reality is that this was an odd game, one unavoidably affected (for both teams) by some erratic and touchy officiating, and by Joel Berry’s quick third and fourth fouls and subsequent 10-minute exile on the bench, at which point the game, momentum and crowd swung in Duke’s favor as an eight-point North Carolina lead became a seven-point Duke lead.
The Tar Heels will be fine. Williams’ two national champions at North Carolina both exited the ACC tournament early, and while this team doesn’t have the injury problems the 2009 team had, Williams said Kennedy Meeks has been dealing with a knee problem, which may help explain why he went from unstoppable in the first half to invisible in the second.
The one conclusion that can unerringly be drawn is that Kennard, Tatum, Allen and Jackson are finally sharing the ball instead of fighting over it, and whatever chemistry problems plagued the Blue Devils appear to have been solved.
Those four never seemed to be firing at the same time. Tatum was hurt to start the season and struggled to find his place in the offense. Allen has been in and out with injuries both physical and mental, but seems comfortable again coming off the bench. Jackson helped keep Duke afloat early, then faded to the background as the others returned to prominence, but has regained his footing at this late point in the season.
Duke arrived in Brooklyn still searching for its identity, but this is it, this four-headed perimeter monster. This was it all along. It was never a question of figuring it out. It was just a question of whether it would click.
Throw Giles into the mix, and Duke is really dangerous, but it’s hard to say whether this is the beginning of a trend of a one-time summoning of the inner reserves of talent Giles has always possessed but has been unable to draw upon because of his injuries. Even now, his legs lack the elastic athleticism that made him such a coveted recruit in high school, but he shows flashes.
This was the brightest flash yet, blocking shots and dunking and giving Duke the inside presence it lacked in the first half when North Carolina got easy basket after easy basket. The Blue Devils, using the short bench Krzyzewski always prefers, do not appear from the outside to have the depth necessary to become the first ACC team to win four games in four days. Giles may be the wild card. Or he may not.
Either way, Duke is on the verge of winning its first ACC title since 2011, a championship achieved with a win over North Carolina in their last tournament meeting. That was in Greensboro, on a wild Sunday afternoon. This was in Brooklyn, a different kind of environment but no less electric.
Whether they win or lose the title, whether they make history in the process, they’ll head home having secured something that’s probably more important in the long run: the talent and belief that they can play with anyone, anywhere.
Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, firstname.lastname@example.org, @LukeDeCock