Mike Krzyzewski looked his Duke players in the eye and told them they were made for moments like Sunday.
The No. 1 Blue Devils responded, rallying from four points down in the final two minutes to beat ninth-seeded Central Florida, 77-76, and stay alive in the NCAA tournament.
The question, as the Blue Devils prepare to face Virginia Tech in the East Region semifinals Friday night, is, can Duke afford to keep putting itself in such situations?
When the Blue Devils (31-5) returned to the practice floor Tuesday on campus, they focused on appreciating the accomplishment while knowing it’s best to avoid such close calls.
“Can’t take anything for granted,” Duke freshman forward Cam Reddish said after practice. “Making sure we give every minute our all. We can’t take any plays off because every team is out there fighting for their lives and we have to go out there and fight for ours and just play our game.”
As talented as the Blue Devils are, they’ve often needed in-game wake-up calls to pull out wins. The 23-point rally in the final 10 minutes on Feb. 12 to win at Louisville, 71-69, is the most extreme example.
They trailed Georgia Tech 29-27 at halftime on Jan. 26 at Cameron Indoor Stadium before winning 66-53.
Even this month, on March 5, the Blue Devils trailed Wake Forest by 10 points early in the second half at Cameron and won 71-70 after the Demon Deacons’ shot at the final buzzer rolled off the rim.
Against Central Florida last Sunday in Columbia, S.C., Duke led by eight points at halftime and 66-59 with 7:30 to play.
Duke co-captain Javin DeLaurier, a junior who is Duke’s only non-freshman starter, said opponents usually crumble against the Blue Devils in those situations. But, as Reddish said Tuesday, this is March, when teams fight for their lives. Central Florida fought back.
ACC player of the year Zion Williamson was the only Blue Devil who scored over the next five minutes, allowing the underdog Knights to take a 74-70 lead.
Reddish’s 3-pointer, followed by Williamson’s basket with 14 seconds remaining and Barrett’s rebound basket off Williamson’s missed free throw with 11 seconds left pulled Duke to the 77-76 win.
“We were able to find a way to win,” Krzyzewski said. “These kids are that -- they have it. They have it. Hopefully, we can continue to advance, but I love who they are, and I have confidence in them. If they didn’t come through, then I got their backs, but they did come through.”
Duke will have more tough challenges ahead as East Region’s top four seeds all remain alive to converge at Washington’s Capital One Arena.
No. 2 seed Michigan State (30-6) faces No. 3 seed LSU (28-6) in Friday’s first semifinal, followed by Duke and No. 4 seed Virginia Tech (26-8).
Elsewhere in the tournament, all four No. 1 regional seeds remain alive -- North Carolina, Virginia and Gonzaga in addition to Duke.
If the Blue Devils get out of Washington to make the Final Four in Minneapolis, more stern challenges like they faced last Sunday await. Surviving slow stretches will be even more difficult.
That is a big lesson the Blue Devils took from the Central Florida experience.
“We were still able to find a way to win a game like that,” Duke freshman point guard Tre Jones said Tuesday. “So we’re able to learn from that game to not come out so slow, not to dig ourselves a hole. Just keep the same energy throughout the game because we know that both teams are fighting for everything.”