Duke beat UNC in a fierce ACC semifinal, but the Tar Heels led most of the way. Here, UNC freshman guard Brandon Robinson (14) launches a three-point shot in waning seconds of the first half. This TV view is in Wild Wings Cafe in Asheville, among area sports bars for “March Madness.” Photo by Pete Zamplas.
Sparked by surging freshman forward Jayson Tatum, 14th-ranked Duke (27-8) edged 2015 ACC tourney champ Notre Dame (25-9) by 75-69 Saturday in Brooklyn, N.Y. Five-time national champion head coach Mike Krzyzewski (“Coach K”) won his 14th ACC tourney title with Duke since 1986.
Despite a slight snowfall, some fans still drove to watch the game on large televisions in such Hendersonville hot spots as Hannah Flanagan’s and The Dugout Sports Bar and Grill.
Next, the 68-team national tournament started Tuesday. The top four ranked teams last week were Kansas, reigning champ Villanova, UCLA and upstart Gonzaga. The Blue Devils sport major momentum as a vaunted dark horse. They were overshadowed by sixth-ranked North Carolina for most of this season.
Both UNC and Duke open NCAA tourney play Friday in nearby Greenville, S.C. Duke, the East Region’s second seed, plays Troy. Later the Tar Heels (27-7) play Texas Southern. UNC is the top seed in the South, which is strong with Kentucky and UCLA. UNC was national runner-up a year ago.
Duke counters with freshman 6-foot-8 post player Tatum. He scored 24 in the comeback, overtime win over UNC Friday. Then he led the team with 19 points Saturday, and pulled down eight rebounds. The athletic St. Louis native averages 16 points, and 7.3 boards. He averaged 23 points in the first three ACC tourney wins.
Tatum channeled Grant Hill with with his signature play of the night during “crunch” time. He blocked a N.D. drive, then dribbled the length of the court for a layup and three-point lead with 1:33 remaining. Soon after, he slammed while fouled and made the free throw to seal the win by providing a five-point lead with 25 ticks left.
Guard Luke Kennard scored 16. The sophomore was the overall ACC tourney MVP, and his 20-point average leads Duke. Senior Amile Jefferson scored 14. Junior guard Grayson Allen added 10, as four starters reached double digits on Saturday. Kennard and Allen average a combined five three-point shots made per game.
Tatum told media that defense was the best facet of all, in the title victory. Yet Duke made its shots count, shooting a season-best 60.8 percent from the field. The Devils were down by as many as eight points, midway in the second half. They overcame double-digit deficits to knock off fourth seed Louisville by four, then top seed North Carolina by 10 in their prior contests. Duke withstood a ferocious Clemson comeback in its opener, to win by seven.
Duke won its 20th Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) tourney title, and first as merely a fifth seed. Half (10) of those crowns in the new millennium including in nine of its first 12 years.
This is the first one done by winning four games in four nights, with the conference expanded to 15 teams. Coach K said “it’s not just winning four. It’s who you beat.”
Outscoring arch-rival Tar Heels was a treat, in a semifinal. UNC paced the ACC at 14-4. Duke was 11-7. The teams each won at home, versus the other. UNC won 90-83 on March 4. But six days later, Duke returned the favor 93-83. Tatum exploded for 24 points, Kennard 20, Allen 18 and freshman Frank Jackson added 15 points.
UNC’s Meeks scored four of UNC’s first five baskets, as the Heels led 10-4, 49-42 at intermission and much of the second half. Meeks and Hicks each scored 19, as UNC dominated inside as usual.
Though Tatum now gives the Devils post play, they still rely most on outside shooting. They doubled UNC’s three-point output, making 10 of 17 versus UNC’s shoddy five of 22. Notre Dame then also fizzled against Duke’s perimeter defense, sinking less than one-fourth instead of its usual 39 percent.
Winning daily in four days and the title was “remarkable,” Coach K told WMYA TV 40, since by Saturday “we’re exhausted. We’re on fumes.” His Duke squads were ACC regular-season champs 12 times.
Krzyzewski has won more games (1,070 than any NCAA men’s Division 1 basketball coach. Most (997) were with Duke, as he nears another milestone. He won national titles in 1991, ’92, 2001, ’10 and ’15. He reached the Final Four 12 times in 32 tries. He coached the USA to Olympic gold in the past three Olympiads.
Coach K turned 70 on Feb. 13. He played at Army for volatile Bobby Knight, coached five seasons at Army before starting at Duke in 1980-81, and snapped Knight’s career win mark.
Coach K cited “team unity” as a key for success this year. The streaky Devils were preseason number one, but stumbled to a 3-4 ACC start with Coach K missing seven games following back surgery.
Doldrums were reached by losing (84-82) at home to North Carolina State for the first time since 1995. The Devils later dropped three of their final four ACC regular games. K suspended Allen for repeatedly tripping foes.
But in between, the Devils greatly improved with Coach K’s return. After the loss to NCSU, still-idled K reportedly chastised players in his home — and forbid them to wear Duke gear, or even use their locker room. The shakeup worked. Duke then won seven in a row.
Pivotal was emergence of freshmen such as Tatum and 6-10, 240-pound Harry Giles. Winston-Salem native Giles is the sole North Carolinian on Duke’s roster, compared to six for UNC. The young Devils have less depth, and six freshmen and five sophs among 16 on varsity.
Joining Tatum and Kennard on the ACC all-tourney first team were UNC’s Hicks, and N.D.’s stocky Bonzie Colson (29 points Saturday) and Matt Farrell. Third seed Notre Dame, ranked 22nd, beat second seed Florida State in an ACC semifinal. At least a wee bit of the Irish sparked in some fans watching the finals in Hannah’s, the self-proclaimed local “Irish pub.” The Irish, in the ACC since ’13, reached the round of eight in the last two NCAA tourneys.
Fate differed for two in-state ACC schools. N.C. State lost to Clemson in the ACC’s opening round. But Wake Forest racked up 92 then 90 points, beating Boston College then losing 99-90 to Virginia Tech. The Demon Deacons duel with Kansas State in a play-in game Tuesday.