This season started about Coach K, but a powerful push to the Final Four made Duke players the big story

SAN FRANCISCO – There was never a second to lose. Every moment of every downtime was an opportunity. It was for, as Mike Krzyzewski mentioned this week, a chance to cross the bridge to the mecca of college basketball.

The glory of the Final Four was at stake.

They know the bridges of this city well. The most famous of these stands out – “international orange” is its official color – just seven miles from the Chase Center, overlooking the Presidio and connecting one part of San Francisco to another. In this steeply sloping metropolis, where streets bow and sag like ski slopes, and where the slopes and plateaus of its thoroughfares offer incredible views around this beautiful slab of land and water, everything was pretty stable, level, poised for the second-seeded Blue Devils on Saturday night.

As important as this Elite Eight matchup against No. 2 Duke and No. 4 Arkansas was, we were lacking in drama.

Duke was its relentless best here in a 78-69 win over Arkansas. The Blue Devils grew again, proving their talent was as unstoppable as this storybook tale itself. It’s not possible for Krzyzewski to go to the Final Four in his last season, is it? Is this really the case? He is. The passage was certainly deserved.

“They were a tight team before the NCAA, but in those last four games they’ve been great,” Krzyzewski said. “I’m so proud of you and happy for you. You crossed the bridge, man, and we beat an outstanding team.”

Let’s get back to those timeouts. With a press row behind Duke’s bench for this game, CBS Sports was able to listen to each meeting for two hours. The Blue Devils briefly trailed 9-6 early on but otherwise kept control of this game. Krzyzewski had fire in his stomach and a classic coaching scratch in his throat as he bellowed over the PA system and cheer tapes.

” You must go there ! We are going too slowly! he told his team during the Under-16 timeout of the first half. He looked fired up. The match had just started.

Krzyzewski didn’t allow himself to show relief, not even when Duke was in charge late and most of the building realized what was going on here. To wit: A deep Trevor Keels 3-pointer at the first-half buzzer gave Duke a 45-33 lead heading into the break. Moments later, a support staff member quietly dropped four pairs of golden scissors on the Duke side of the scorer’s table. Nor was the regional champion’s trophy, and the box it was stored in, so discreetly tucked away near the Duke bench.

“Duke was phenomenal,” Razorbacks coach Eric Musselman said. “I would be surprised if they don’t play to win a national championship.”

It was only with less than 30 seconds remaining that Krzyzewski let out a “YES!!!” before getting back to business as usual before the game hit triple zeros.

The Blue Devils are still in this thing. This story will not end. The old man did it one last time, breaking his tie with John Wooden for the Final Fours, now sitting 13 ahead of Wooden’s 12. After doing the tough, Duke’s season and Krzyzewski’s career will end in the Big Easy.

There was only one point in the second half where things went wrong. Arkansas was able to cut it to a 53-48 Duke lead with 13:13 to go. It was the only time all night that Krzyzewski waited a minute to address his team. Duke’s five starters – Wendell Moore Jr, Paolo Banchero, Mark Williams, Jeremy Roach and Keels – all settled things between them before K again settled into a chair and took to leading on the whiteboard , a marker in hand.

Coming out of that timeout, Banchero and Griffin made back-to-back plays to swell Duke’s lead to 57-48. Soon it was a 16-6 run and Duke had a 69-54 lead.

“We were preparing to be knocked out, and in the last 12 minutes they weren’t knocked out,” Krzyzewski said. “They played some great basketball.”

It was actually over. Yet with 3:58 on the clock, Krzyzewski was still treating the game as if Arkansas needed a 3-pointer to regain the lead.

The score was 72-57.

“Listen! LISTEN!!” he commanded his team. “No respite!”

He’s been training his 75-year-old ass for the past two weeks in this tournament. The man has said over and over again that he is ready to retire, but to see him hold a caucus, it doesn’t look like it. Almost every second of given time is methodical.

Duke never let go. Because of this, the program is going to its 17th Final Four. The Blue Devils had 46 points in the paint against Arkansas, continuing a trend that defined Duke’s teamwork instinct. The Blue Devils have managed with 52% of their points in four games in the paint, according to looking for ESPN. They are one of the most dominant close-to-the-edge teams in all tournaments. They will also catch you from the depths. Barely 10 3-point attempts for the Blue Devils against Arkansas, but four of them look true. Toss seven interceptions and 12 points behind Arkansas’ turnovers. A deep threat scoring touch combined with a relentless interior, which turned this team into the No. 1 ranked points-per-possession offense in the sport.

“We knew we could do it, and that’s what we’ve been working for since June,” Banchero said. “So to finally be able to go to New Orleans and have a chance to play for a national championship is a blessing. I’m just proud of how we came together.”

Krzyzewski wants to talk about the players, and we should. Here’s to them. It’s theirs. Much of this season and the pressure surrounding it has fallen on them. It was Krzyzewski’s doing, of course, but he said it was the only way he felt to do it and be ethical with recruiting. He wanted another year but didn’t want to know in private that the end was approaching. With that, some sort of burden was placed on Duke players. They handled it brilliantly, especially after failing to win the last game at home against North Carolina and then being kicked out of the ACC Tournament by a Virginia Tech team that rallied to win the ACC Championship. before embarking on the Big. To dance.

The response of four in a row to qualify for the national semi-finals equals one of the most impressive March performances a Krzyzewski team has ever put on.

Williams should be singled out. He was outstanding again: 12 points, 12 rebounds, three blocks and, tangibly, the most valuable player on either team.

“He’s a hell of a defensive player,” Roach said. “I love having him on the pitch. It’s so much easier for the guards to try to really pressure the ball. So they really don’t have to worry if a guy gets past you, you know the big guy is always there for the back. He’s an important part of this team. We wouldn’t be here without him.

It’s exceptional how Duke has seen every starter elevate their game — even AJ Griffin had a quiet team-best 18 points against Arkansas. Again, Krzyzewski didn’t have much in the post-match press conference about what this means for him. His passion and gratitude was for the players. Program victory. The players win. He is right. You can roll your eyes at Krzyzewski all you want about what’s going on this season and how the announcement of his retirement more than nine months in advance is making him history, but this Saturday night, the story is the determination and incredible evolution of the Duke team. .

They have claimed to be the most talented in the sport all season. Now that the talent is reaching its potential, Duke has become the best team and the favorite to win it all.

“They did it for us, and enough talk about doing it for the old man here,” Krzyzewski said. “We’re not going to do it unless we all owned it, and we all owned it. We all owned this moment together. That’s what we’re playing for.”

It’s not the same team, not in many ways, that was beaten by North Carolina at Cameron Indoor Stadium 21 nights before.

“But you really discover character in those situations,” Krzyzewski said. “It’s not luck. It’s them. That’s what I’m trying to tell you, it’s on them because it’s them. It doesn’t matter what you do as a coach, they have to show that level of character, and in this tournament it really lifted them up. They were beautiful. They were sensational. And they were really good. I loved them before, but now I respect them so much, everything. they did.”

Krzyzewski is heading to his 13th Final Four in a fifth decade: three in the 80s, five in the 90s, two in the 2000s, two in the 2010s, and now this one to conclude an unprecedented career.

A victory in North Carolina on Sunday would put the biggest rivalry in sports on the biggest stage in college basketball. The Blue Devils and Tar Heels have played 257 times in their history, but never in the NCAA Tournament. Something phenomenal awaits you in Louisiana: Either Duke will take on their blood rival in a game of revenge, with Krzyzewski’s retirement on the line after UNC embarrassed Duke at home in K’s last home game, or. ..

Good …

Saint Pierre. Duke against Saint-Pierre. It would be the largest token representation of David vs. Goliath in sports history. This is the other result. Either one is amazing. This race from Duke has been amazing. The mere fact that he faces North Carolina or the first No. 15 seed in a Final Four is so outrageous it borders on fiction. We will learn what our reality is soon enough. Duke’s reality shifts to New Orleans all the same. Mecca awaits. These players are two wins away from achieving what would be one of the greatest championship stories in American sports history.