SAN FRANCISCO – With just six points under five minutes left in the second half on Thursday, Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski knew his team was on the ropes, the end of his legendary career drawing ever closer.
The burly Texas Tech Red Raiders had dictated the pace throughout the first half of the NCAA Tournament West Region semifinal and continued to impose their will. The Blue Devils were lucky 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 quite a bit during the season and, if it wasn’t a last-resort tactic, it was probably second to last.
The results weren’t dramatic, but they made enough of a difference that second-seeded Duke was able to escape with a 78-73 win to give the retiring Krzyzewski his 100th NCAA Tournament victory 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 take on No. 4 Arkansas, who defeated top-seeded Gonzaga 74-68, with a Final Four spot on the line. Should they make it that far, Krzyzewski would set a record with a 13th Final Four appearance, breaking a tie with UCLA’s iconic John Wooden.
“He kept the amount of physical activity down because they were wearing us out, so the zone gave us a chance to 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 (a game-high 22 points) hit a short jumper from the baseline at 11:35. The teams weren’t separated by more than four points until the Blue Devils opened up a 73-68 lead with 1:30 left, then froze the game at the free throw line.
Duke made its last eight field goal attempts and became 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 zoned for only about seven minutes, and it wasn’t nearly as effective until they tightened it up enough to prevent 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 he was later asked to speak man-to-man again, he agreed, saying the request came from the entire group, “like a Catholic boys’ choir. It was a choir. Everybody said it.”
“When they said that, I felt like they were going to take it over,” Krzyzewski said. “They’ll make it work, and that’s probably more important than strategy during that time.”
PLAYING IN THE SHADOW: Arizona, Kansas could face NCAA sanctions after tournament
SWEET 16: Winners and losers of Thursday’s games
RESULTS: MEN | WOMEN
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 the youth of his team.
The game pitted Duke’s usual collection of top-tier prospects likely headed to the NBA after a brief layoff in college, including Banchero and guard AJ Griffin, against an experienced Texas Tech roster featuring several transfers. and five seniors 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 their five leading scorers are freshmen.
Banchero, a rookie forward who combined with center Mark Williams (7-1) 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 looked shaky going 2-2 in their last four games before the NCAA, including a blowout loss to rival North Carolina in Krzyzewski’s final home game, when the emotions of the occasion could have gotten the better of them.
His two wins at March Madness had been solid but less than impressive, raising questions about his ability to get past Texas Tech, let alone reach the Final Four in New Orleans. The oddsmakers had essentially called the game a toss, and more than a few pundits believed the plucky Red Raiders would smother Duke with their defense.
In fact, they did for the first 25 minutes or so, until the Blue Devils began poking through the so-called “no center” defense with Banchero, Williams and a strong second half from point guard Jeremy Roach, who scored 11 of his goals. 15 points after the break. Duke shot 71% in the final 20 minutes, the highest this season against Texas Tech.
“When you play 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 him. ” said forward Bryson Williams, who led the Red Raiders with 21 points. “Those guys had momentum late in the game, and they made the most of it, so just kudos to them. They played very well on the offensive end towards the end of the game.”
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Duke, Coach K earn Elite Eight spot with win over Texas Tech