GREENVILLE, S.C. -- This was it. The moment had truly finally arrived. A South Carolina Sunday was where and when Duke had to prove itself. If not, everything would come crashing down.
The second-seeded Blue Devils found themselves trailing 70-65 against No. 7 Michigan State with five minutes remaining in this feverish, meeting-the-hype second round NCAA Tournament game. Elimination was now on the table. The prospect of the end of Mike Krzyzewski's career had entered the room and hung in the air.
Michigan State hadn't come to play -- it came to bust Duke open. Tom Izzo's team looked hungry, opportunistic and alert. Deep into the second half, the Spartans were showing they could spoil matters for Duke and ship Krzyzewski off to retirement a couple weeks before he wanted.
"I thought when we got down -- we were young for a while there, and I was wondering if we were going to stay young," Krzyzewski said.
Making matters more problematic for Duke was its gimpy starting shooting guard, A.J. Griffin. He was reduced to a spectator after hurting what appeared to be his left ankle with 8:32 remaining and Duke up 63-61. So, here were these fun-but-flawed Blue Devils, their best shooter but a fan. MSU took its first lead since 11:11 of the first half three minutes after Griffin's injury, when Tyson Walker drained a 3-pointer to make it 68-65. A pair of Marcus Bingham Jr. foul shots grew it to a five-point gap for Sparty.
You've gotten to this point, you've seen the headline, you likely watched the game or caught highlights. There's no spoiler here. The result is not in doubt. The story of getting there is why we're here. Who knows where, when or how this Duke season will end? It could be on Thursday in the Sweet 16, in San Francisco vs. 3-seed Texas Tech. It could be in the ultimate game in New Orleans with a national championship on the line.
That mystery will solve itself in relatively short order. But it remains an unknown because of the five-minute stretch of play to close out Sunday's game.
"What a game," Krzyzewski said. "It was reminiscent of the Final Four games. Both teams were lights out with the effort today. We're so very proud of winning this game because we beat a heck of a team, obviously as well-coached as any in the country."
There's a chance the final five minutes of Sunday's 85-76 win over Michigan State winds up being the best and/or most important stretch of Duke's campaign. It saved it Sunday, and it might spur it to something much bigger. The Blue Devils responded to their largest deficit of the night by turning Michigan State upside down. From the moment the game got to 70-65 in favor of MSU, Duke had its best defensive stretch this season, all circumstances considered.
"My guys were so tough in those last six minutes of the game," Krzyzewski said. "The last four or five minutes, the defense was incredible."
How incredible? From the time the game was 70-65, here's how it finished from an efficiency standpoint:
Duke points per possession: 1.80
Michigan State points per possession: 0.67
The Blue Devils went on a 15-4 run, which also contained an 8-0 run, and overall finished the game on a 20-6 hammer-throw to vault themselves into the regional semifinals.
"We went to a little bit different coverage in the full court, like a soft, soft press, just so they didn't get a run because they can really run," Krzyzewski said. "Then we started -- we were going to switch 1 through 5. Mark (Williams) has improved so much during the year in his lateral movement that he can stay in front, and that's what he did."
Duke needed this. It had to be pushed. It had to have its toughness tested. They knew it was coming. One stop wouldn't do. Neither would two or three. It had to be consistent. MSU was too well-coached, too deep, too abundant with scorers and slashers who smelled some blood.
The situation inside Bon Secours Wellness Arena was immediate, urgent, and Duke knew it. But they didn't bring up the looming possibility this game, and season, could end.
"Losing didn't come up one time," Wendell Moore Jr. said.
Over the course of five minutes, Duke defended Michigan State to the tune of 2-of-9 shooting and a turnover.
"You're not going to talk about losing, or else you're going to lose," Krzyzewski said.
Paolo Banchero showed some of his best on both ends. He started Duke's run with a layup. A few possessions later, Banchero took Hauser off the dribble, backed him down. A move between bully-ball and top-pick-in-the-draft stuff, Banchero gently kissed his shot off the glass to give Duke a 75-74 lead with 2:05 to go. It would never trail again. Hauser was blocked by Banchero on a spin-to-the-left attempt on the ensuing possession. For Banchero, a huge moment. A definitive block. Duke had snatched momentum.
"I knew once we got our foot in the door, there was no looking back from there," Moore said, later adding that once the team was together at the under-four timeout, "we just looked in each other's eyes, and we knew we weren't going to lose."
Banchero had a block, Williams had a block, Moore had a steal. And Jeremy Roach hit the 3-pointer that gave Duke a four-point lead with 1:16 to go. That ball going in, as the shot clock was expiring, was the biggest shot of the second half. It put Duke up four and seemed to spook Michigan State. Roach was the guy once Griffin couldn't play. Stepped up. Shined.
"He willed that ball," Krzyzewski said. "He willed that ball in. They were some of the best drives I've seen as a Duke coach, really, especially in a pressure situation."
Another big defensive play materialized on the ensuing possession, as Moore stole an absent-minded pass from Christie. He was right there and Christie, the freshman, didn't even see Moore.
"The last five minutes, I think they made every shot," Izzo said.
He's right. Duke was 5 for 5 from the field in the final five minutes; its only misses came at the foul line. As the clock expired, Krzyzewski and his staff couldn't hold back their smiles, their relief, their joy. There was some easy breathing. A second win had come here in Greenville, which wasn't the case five years ago, when No. 2 Duke was upset by No. 7 South Carolina. Krzyzewski hadn't looked this joyous in weeks. It almost felt as though losing before the regional semifinals would have amounted to an embarrassing end to an unparalleled career -- and rightfully so.
"Look, I'm 75," Krzyzewski said. "To have moments like that, you've got to be kidding me. Really, how damn lucky can you be to be in that? And I want to share it. I don't want to sit down and say, 'You guys enjoy it.' I want to be in the party a little bit. That's the enjoyment I've got, I've had for 47 years. Today was one of the really good days."
What a way, by the way, for K to get career win No. 1,200. He's now one shy of 100 NCAA Tournament victories, too. Both records his, of course. And may prove to be forevermore. This is also his 26th Sweet 16 trip, another record.
Krzyzewski got emotional in his opening statement to the media, as Banchero, Trevor Keels, Moore, Roach and Williams sat next to him.
"I'm incredibly proud of my guys," Krzyzewski said with a quiver in his tone. "This is -- this was -- you guys were terrific, man. I'm really proud to be your coach. It had nothing to do with coaching those last four or five minutes. It all had to do with heart and togetherness. They followed their hearts, and God bless them. We're in the Sweet 16."
The final head-to-head between Krzyzewski and Izzo played out in riveting fashion. Duke pulled away late, but it was a contest in doubt for 39 of its 40 minutes. The potential was there for it all to end for Duke and K, for Michigan State to spoil. Instead, Krzyzewski's players turned up and turned in a performance as clutch and convincing as they've had all season. To see them in that stretch was to be reminded that Duke, when it finds that zone, is as dangerous as any team in the country.
San Francisco awaits.