SAN FRANCISCO – Down a mere six points less than five minutes into the second half Thursday, Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski knew his team was on the ropes, the end of his legendary career looming ever closer.
The rugged Texas Tech Red Raiders had dictated the tempo throughout the first half of their NCAA Tournament West Regional semifinal and were continuing to impose their will. The Blue Devils were fortunate the deficit wasn’t bigger, but it would surely grow if something didn’t change.
So Krzyzewski switched to a zone, a defensive scheme his players had practiced just a bit during the season and, if not a tactic of last resort, was probably the penultimate one.
The results were not dramatic, but they made enough of a difference that second-seeded Duke was able to escape with a 78-73 victory to give the retiring Krzyzewski his 100th NCAA Tournament win and send the Blue Devils to the Elite Eight for the 17th time in his 42-year tenure.
On Saturday, the second-seeded Blue Devils will face No. 4 Arkansas, which upset top-seeded Gonzaga 74-68, with a spot in the Final Four on the line. If they advance that far, Krzyzewski would set a record with a 13th Final Four appearance, breaking a tie with the iconic John Wooden of UCLA.
“It kept down the amount of physicality because they were wearing us down, so the zone gave us a chance to kind of dance around the ring a little bit instead of being in a corner,’’ Krzyzewski said.
A 9-1 surge gave Duke its first lead of the second half, 49-47, when Paolo Banchero (game-high 22 points) hit a short baseline jumper at the 11:35 mark. The teams were not separated by more than four points until the Blue Devils opened a 73-68 lead with 1:30 left to play, then iced the game at the free throw line.
Duke made its last eight field goal attempts as it became only the third team this season to score 70 points against the Red Raiders, who rank at or near the top in most national defensive metrics.
The Blue Devils played zone for only about seven minutes, and it wasn’t all that effective until they tightened it enough to keep third-seeded Texas Tech from beating them with cuts to the basket.
The defensive changes illustrated not only the dire nature of the moment but also Krzyzewski’s willingness to adjust and trust his players. When they later asked to go back to man-to-man, he complied, saying the request came from the whole group, “like a Catholic boys’ choir. It was a chorus. They all said it.’’
“When they said that, I felt they’re going to own it,’’ Krzyzewski said. “They’ll make it work, and that’s probably more important than strategy during that time.’’
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Then again, a Hall of Famer with the most wins of any NCAA basketball coach, five national championships and three Olympic gold medals didn’t have to listen, especially given his team’s youth.
The game pitted Duke’s usual collection of blue-chip prospects likely bound for the NBA after a brief college stop – tops among them Banchero and guard AJ Griffin – against an experienced Texas Tech roster featuring several transfers and five upperclassmen in the starting lineup. Only one of Duke’s starters, junior forward Wendell Moore, has played more than two seasons of college basketball. Three of its five leading scorers are freshmen.
Banchero, a freshman forward who combined with 7-1 center Mark Williams for 38 points, acknowledged the magnitude of the moment when he said, “I’ve never played in a basketball game like that.’’
The Blue Devils had looked shaky in going 2-2 over their last four games before the NCAAs, including a runaway loss to rival North Carolina in Krzyzewski’s final home game, when the emotions of the occasion might have gotten the best of them.
Their two March Madness victories had been solid but less than impressive, raising questions about their ability to get past Texas Tech, let alone reach the Final Four in New Orleans. Oddsmakers had essentially called the game a toss-up, and more than a few experts believed the gritty Red Raiders would suffocate Duke with their defense.
Indeed, they did over the first 25 minutes or so, until the Blue Devils started poking through the so-called “no-middle’’ defense with Banchero, Williams and a strong second half from point guard Jeremy Roach, who scored 11 of his 15 points after the break. Duke shot 71% in the final 20 minutes, the highest this season against Texas Tech.
“When you’re playing a team like Duke that has so much firepower on their offensive end and a lot of guys that can do a lot of great things on the floor one-on-one, it’s always going to be hard to stop,’’ said forward Bryson Williams, who led the Red Raiders with 21 points. “Those guys had momentum going into the end of the game, and they took full advantage of it, so just hats off to them. They played great on the offensive end towards the end of the game.’’