On Saturday night in San Francisco, Duke gave Mike Krzyzewski the retirement gift he craved most: a record appearance in the 14th Final.
Krzyzewski hugged his players and beamed with joy as the talented young Blue Devils ended their 78-69 Elite Eight victory over Arkansas to extend their farewell tour by another week.
By beating the fourth-seeded Razorbacks, Krzyzewski beat John Wooden in the most Final Four match by any college coach. The UCSD Wizard of Westwood went to the National Semifinals 12 times from 1962 to 1975.
Waiting for the Duke in New Orleans will be either the NCAA Championship darlings or the Blue Devils’ biggest competitor. North Carolina State just needs to beat 15th seed St. Peter on Sunday to establish the first-ever NCAA Championship bout between Tobacco Road competitors.
Just four times prior to this season, Duke and North Carolina earned the Elite Eight in the same year. Only in 1991 both reached the fourth final.
While Duke boasts a loaded roster of half a dozen NBA prospects, the Blue Devils’ youth for most of the season have been as evident as their talent. There were a few times late in early March when the moment seemed too big for them, when they seemed to buckle under pressure to take out Krzyzewski with a perfect final moment.
After North Carolina spoiled Krzyzewski’s last game at Cameron Indoor Stadium with a 94-81 loss, the legendary coach grabbed a microphone and apologized to the scores of his former players present and to a shocked and silent audience. “Let me just say – this is not acceptable,” he said. “Today was unacceptable, but the season was very agreeable. And I will tell you, the season is not over, okay?”
From this sharp speech came some fruitful conversations that helped smooth Duke’s road to New Orleans. Krzyzewski hinted on Friday that he regretted the way he handled the pain of that loss and that he had spoken to his players about it.
“I really felt bad for them,” Krzyzewski said. “When I said unacceptable, it wasn’t that it was unacceptable. The result was unacceptable, and I wanted to make sure that I didn’t misunderstand that.”
Another subtle but significant change Krzyzewski made was to use the NCAA Extended 20-minute Championship half times differently. Instead of immediately launching into a speech addressing what went right and what went wrong, Krzyzewski spent more time listening to his players’ comments.
“When I came into the dressing room, I pulled out a chair, and sat with them for about five minutes,” Krzyzewski said. “It’s just, well, here we are and just talk to them.”
If the first two weeks of the NCAA Championships are any indication, Duke appears to be responding well to this watered-down approach. The Little Blue Devils seem to be growing up and dealing with the pressure to send Krzyzewski into retirement with another episode.
They rallied for a second-round win over Michigan State despite trailing five minutes before play. Then they seemed to be overwhelmed early by Texas Tech’s vaunted defense in the Sweet 16, only to hit 71 percent of the field in the second half and miss a shot in the final eight minutes.
There was no need for any late comeback against Arkansas, thanks in part to Duke changing the game 8-0 to end the first half. The Razorbacks went into the first half by 12 despite being in a roughly 4-6 point range for the entire half.
It was really wrong with Arkansas Chris LakesThe decision to raise a triple pointer with just over 10 seconds left in the half. By not running the clock, Lykes gave Trevor Kells time to punish the Razorbacks with a 3-back breaking pointer at the bell.
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