Marilyn Payne

'Different,' Duke run positions Blue Devils well for NCAA Tournament

Posted March 12

Mike Krzyzewski stood on the court after his record 14th ACC Tournament Championship feeling "a little wacky." It was "a good strange," to feel so very different.

The Hall of Fame coach couldn't stop smiling, he looked like he was still processing what happened.

Duke (27-8) beat Notre Dame 75-69, winning its fourth game in four days, to become the first No. 5 seed to ever make that run and win the ACC Tournament Championship.

"This is new," Krzyzewski said, who broke his tie with Dean Smith to become the coach with the most ACC Tournament Titles in history.

"I love my guys. They've been through more than any other group that I've coached," he said. "To see them, especially win against this caliber team, is remarkable. We're on fumes."

The last 10 minutes of the game, K didn't call a play -- the coaching staff told the team, "you play, you take ownership," and "you could see (Duke's) guys just make plays," Krzyzewski said.

The Blue Devils led the first half of the Barclays Center finale, then lost their grip on the game. It was the opposite of the Thursday and Friday wins -- against No. 4 seed Louisville (24-8) and top seed North Carolina (27-7).

The Fighting Irish led by as many as eight points in the second half, but a 7-0 run that started with a Frank Jackson banger three-pointer changed that. It was the type of shot the team made all week long; a basket that changed the game, not just the score.

Finally, eight and a half minutes of play later, Jackson and his teammates -- ACC Tournament MVP Luke Kennard, the championship game's leading scorer Jayson Tatum, previously-injured fifth-year senior Amile Jefferson, preseason ACC Player of the Year and player off the bench Grayson Allen, the perceived best incoming freshman in the class Harry Giles, and all the rest of the Blue Devils -- made headlines and history because of their play on the court.

After the ongoing beratement of Allen's sportsmanship (or, lack thereof) and his indefinite, one-game suspension; after Krzyzewski's back surgery and absence from the head coaching role while Jeff Capel ran the show; after losing to an unranked opponent in Cameron Indoor for the first time in 124 games and being kicked out of its own locker room by Krzyzewski; after injuries that sidelined Tatum, Giles, Jefferson and Allen... Duke won out.

The year taught Krzyzewski not to let anything stop him from believing in the positive outcome -- regardless of what he calls a "shallow analysis," of what a player or team can do.

"I'm a little wacky here because I can't compare this to anything," he said.

The win can't be compared to anything by anyone, it's something that has never happened. But, it's something Duke knew it could do.

Jefferson and fellow senior Matt Jones refused to return to Durham, "to the dorm," without a trophy and a title.

"It didn't click until we won that we actually did it," Tatum said. "It was tougher than we thought.

"We just wanted to be special, we wanted to overcome everything we've been through throughout the entire season," he said. "A lot of people counted us out when we were losing games and guys were hurt. We wanted to show the world that we are still going to be a special team. We did that this week."

A less-than-expected regular season added to the chip on the shoulders that the program has to have because of who it is, Jackson believes. "Everybody wants a piece at us, to beat us at one point," he said.

That's part of what ultimately leads the Blue Devils to their success.

"We won four big games and we learned something new about ourselves, something new about our team," Jackson said. "This week was another test of who we are. With all the heart and fight we have, we rose to the ocsasion.

"This is the result of that."

Five National Championships, six gold medals, the most career wins in NCAA history and now the most tournament championships in the best conference in all of college basketball.

But Saturday's win, Krzyzewski's most recent, is unshakeably different. The preseason No. 1 team in the nation has already exceeded those "shallow," adjusted expectations of outsiders and seems to have only just begun.

"It was not like anything I've been through, these last few days," Krzyzewski said. "That's pretty cool when I've probably been through more than anybody. I've been lucky to be successful. For them to take me through a journey that I've never been through before is kind of amazing."

"This is completely different."

"Uncommon winning," isn't a new concept or way of thinking for Duke though, even in a victory by way of a rarer path than uncommon. After four wins in four days, the Blue Devils have won 12 of their last 15 games.

"Through everything this season, we've come together," Allen said. "You have to beat human nature that tells you you've done something when there's more to accomplish.

"We haven't played our best basketball yet, we're seeing things come together that will be huge for us in the (NCAA) tournament."

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