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Embracing Grayson Allen

But this week in Washington was not Grayson's numbers. It was about the "celebration" of Allen as the biggest villain in college basketball.

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Mar 10, 2016; Washington, DC, USA; Duke Blue Devils head coach Mike Krzyzewski hugs guard Grayson Allen (3) after he fouled out in over time of during day three of the ACC conference tournament at Verizon Center.
Mar 10, 2016; Washington, DC, USA; Duke Blue Devils head coach Mike Krzyzewski hugs guard Grayson Allen (3) after he fouled out in over time of during day three of the ACC conference tournament at Verizon Center.
Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

There were 26 seconds left in the overtime between Duke and Notre Dame Thursday when Grayson Allen fouled out.

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The sophomore guard left the court for the first time in two ACC Tournament games – after playing 84 and a half consecutive minutes for the Blue Devils. As he left the floor, it was obvious that Duke was going to lose – the final would be Notre Dame 84-79 – and the largely anti-Duke crowd at the Verizon Center was showering the hated Allen with jeers.

But when Allen reached the Duke bench, he and Blue Devil coach Mike Krzyzewski embraced – much like Coach K and Steve Wojciechowski memorably embraced at the conclusion of Duke’s dramatic comeback victory over North Carolina in 1998.

This wasn’t the same – that embrace came at the conclusion of one of the great comeback wins in Duke history. This embrace came at the end of a frustrating meltdown as Duke squandered a 16-point second-half lead. And it came in a hostile environment for the Blue Devils and for Allen.

And that – according to Krzyzewski – was part of the message.

"He’s getting a lot of abuse," the Duke coach said. "I want to show everybody what I think of him and what every Duke fan should think of him. He’s a great, great player. He’s a great player."

Allen finished the game with 27 points, four steals, three assists and four rebounds. He had 19 points and six assists in Wednesday’s victory over N.C. State.

But this week in Washington was not about his numbers. It was about the "celebration" of Allen as the biggest villain in college basketball. Not only was he booed constantly by almost every non-Duke fan this side of the White House, his imagine on the big screen – which showed up frequently in ACC highlights – was the occasion for more boos. Maybe the loudest noise of the afternoon came when Allen’s game-winning shot against Virginia was projected on the scoreboard and a coalition of Notre Dame, UNC, Virginia and whoever else was not wearing Duke Blue rose to scream that he traveled on the play.

When Allen committed what was ruled a flagrant foul against N.C. State’s Cat Barber in Wednesday’s game, you’d have thought he mugged Barber with a blackjack and a tire iron (rather than merely grabbing his jersey on the break). On ESPN, they pulled out the video of Allen’s two tripping incidents, just to remind everybody to hate on Allen.

Late in the Notre Dame game, Allen fouled V.J. Beachem – just a normal late-game foul by the team that’s behind in the final seconds. But Beachem stumbled and was in danger of falling on his face. Allen wrapped his arms around the Irish player to prevent him from eating hardwood. But to hear the crowd screaming for an ejection, you’d have thought Allen was committing aggravated assault.

That’s why Krzyzewski hugged his young star. And that’s why he jumped in when I asked Allen about the role fatigue may have played in his late-game shooting slump.

"There are certain guys who are never tired, okay?" Krzyzewski said. "What they are called is special players. I’ve coached a lot of them and he’s one of them. That’s why he’s not going to be tired. He’s not going to be tired of putting himself on the line, taking a big shot, making a big play."

Krzyzewski made his feelings about the embattled Allen clear.

"Look, he’s as good a competitor as there is in college basketball," he said. "We go the way he goes. This kid has been a great, great player for us – a warrior.

"I’m as proud as I can be to be his coach. He embraces what we want in our program. He’s academic All-American, an All-American, a warrior, a tough kid. That’s why I embraced him, just to say thanks."

Although that might have sounded like a valedictory, Allen’s time at Duke is not over – whether he goes pro this spring or returns to Duke for his junior year. Whatever happens in the off-season, this season is still has a way to go.

"The good thing is we’re going to play next week," Krzyzewski said. "Look, we got better while we are here, which is what we wanted to do."

There were some signs Thursday that Duke might make a deep run in the NCAA Tournament. For 39 minutes, the Blue Devils played what Krzyzewski called "beautiful basketball … I mean big-time basketball."

Those first 29 minutes were something to behold.

Duke led the Irish 64-48, even though neither Brandon Ingram nor Luke Kennard were hitting and even without a contribution from a masked Marshall Plumlee.

But none of that seemed to matter. The Blue Devils were getting major contributions from freshman Chase Jeter (7 points, 6 rebounds in 14 minutes) and a surprising two points and four rebounds in six minutes from invisible man Sean Obi.

More importantly, Duke’s zone defense was stifling Notre Dame’s offense (forcing the Irish into a season-high 18 turnovers), but the Devils were dominating the backboards, pulling down 22 – 22! – offensive rebounds.

Matt Jones drained a 3-pointer to give Duke a 64-48 lead with 11:08 to play. Victory seemed all but certain, especially after Steve Vasturia missed a 3-pointer for the Irish and Duke got the ball back.

That’s when things slowly began to go wrong.

It started when Luke Kennard, who struggled all afternoon, missed a good look at a 3-pointer.

At the other end, Notre Dame – for the first time all day – played volleyball under the basket, missing two shots, but rebounding both misses. The end result didn’t seem too bad –Bonzie Colson hit one of two free throws to cut Duke’s lead to 15.

Then came what I consider to be the key sequence in Duke’s collapse;

Duke ran 20 seconds off the clock before Matt Jones missed a driving shot. But Obi grabbed the rebound and kicked it out to Derryck Thornton, who was wide open for the 3-pointer. He missed, but Notre Dame lost the rebound out of bounds and Duke got a third chance. Allen drove and kicked out to Thornton for another wide open 3-pointer.

He missed again and Vasturia scored on a fast-break layup to trim the margin to 11.

On Duke’s next two possessions, Plumlee was fouled going to the basket , but on both occasions he was 0-for-2 from the line.

After the second, Beachem hit a 3-pointer over the Duke zone and suddenly the lead was eight. At that point, an old ACC phenomenon occurred. The unaffiliated fans began to cheer for the comeback. Suddenly, the Verizon Center was as hostile to the Blue Devils as the Smith Center or PNC Arena.

Duke’s inability to score continued. Ingram missed a pull-up jumper. Allen had a long 3-point try rim in and out. Ingram missed a driving shot. Allen missed another 3 point attempt.

"We had a couple where we had offensive boards, kicked it out and we missed what I would call daggers," Krzyzewski said. "That affected us because that’s a big-time play that we’ve always done."

Duke’s scoreless drought extended until Thornton converted two free throws with 3:37 to play.

During that seven minutes and 21 seconds without a point, Duke missed eight straight field goals, four straight free throws and had a turnover. Notre Dame didn’t light it up, but the Irish did run off 14 straight points. Zack Auguste began to dominate the boards (he finished with 22 rebounds) and Beachem hit three crucial 3-pointers down the stretch.

"We let the offense affect the defense and we didn’t rebound well," Krzyzewski said. "The other thing, we stopped talking. I’m telling you, not hitting shots, it affects a younger team more. It did today."

Even with the late collapse, Duke had a chance at the end of regulation, when Kennard took an inbounds from Ingram and got free for about a 15-foot floater at the buzzer. But like almost all Kennard’s shots on this day (he was 2-for-14), it refused to go down.

And that was it.

"I thought we ran out of gas in overtime," Krzyzewski admitted.

Maybe the challenge of playing two and an eighth games in 24 hours was too much for this young Duke team. They won’t have to do that going forward – in the NCAA, they might have to play two games in 36 hours or so, but no worse than that.

And the solid contributions by Jeter and even Obi offer the prospect of giving the Iron Six a bit of rest going forward.

Can Duke go forward?

Well, a year ago, the Blue Devils had the same ACC Tournament experience as they had this week – a victory over N.C. State, followed by a loss to Notre Dame.

How did that team respond in the NCAA Tournament?

BE CAREFUL WHAT YOU WISH FOR

The North Carolina fans in the crowd were unabashed in their support for Notre Dame against Duke.

At least until it was obvious that the Irish were going to win.

One Tar Heel fanatic (in the media) told me afterwards that he and his friends suddenly realized that Notre Dame might present a more difficult task in Friday night’s semifinals than a tired Duke team trying to play its third game in three days.

And he also remembered that as much as Mike Brey has tortured Duke since coming into the league (5-1 against the Blue Devils), he’s been almost as dominant against the Tar Heels – winning three of four matchups, including the last three in a row.

THE TOURNEY’S GREATEST WINNER

I came up with an interesting trivia question Wednesday when John Prouty (the author of the ACC Statbook) and I were researching a story on the ACC’s all-time All-Tournament team.

One of the factors we considered was a player’s career record in ACC Tournament games. We found a number of guys who finished with a 9-0 record in tournament play (counting only the games those players appeared in). That list included Jason Williams and Mike Dunleavy of Duke (but not classmate Carlos Boozer, who missed the three games in 2001), plus the UNC quartet of Rusty Clark, Bill Bunting, Dick Grubar and Gerald Tuttle (classmate Joe Brown missed one game in that three-year span). It also included Ron Shavlik, Phil DiNardo and Vic Molodet of N.C. State.

But one and only one player finished his career 10-0 in ACC Tournament play – Casey Sanders of Duke.

The relatively unknown big man was in the class with Williams and Dunleavy, but unlike them, he stayed four years as Duke won four titles. He played in 10 of those 12 games, starting the three games in the 2001 ACC Tournament.

If anybody’s interested, our preliminary All-Tournament team ended up as (chronological order):

-- Lennie Rosenbluth of UNC … the 1957 MVP had the highest career scoring average in tournament history (32.7 ppg). Career tourney record: 4-2

-- Len Chappell of Wake Forest … two-time MVP who averaged 27.5 ppg and 12.0 rebounds. Career tourney record: 7-1

-- Larry Miller of UNC … two-time MVP whose average of 22.6 ppg was hurt by the six points he scored in his one tourney loss – the 21-20 Duke win in 1966. Career tourney record: 7-1.

-- Tim Duncan of Wake … one-time MVP who led Wake to two titles and averaged 20.2 ppg, 13.5 rebounds and 4.1 blocks. Career tourney record: 8-2

-- J.J. Redick of Duke – two-time MVP (and he should have won a third) who is the leading scorer in ACC Tournament history. Career tourney record: 11-1.

Our second team is (at the moment): Tommy Burleson of N.C. State, Randolph Childress of Wake Forest (who had the single greatest tournament), UNC’s Charlie Scott (who had the greatest single tournament game), N.C. State’s Ron Shavlik and Duke’s Mike Gminski (by a hair over UNC’s Tyler Hansbrough – both had the same 8-2 tourney record and led their team to two titles, but G-man averaged more points, rebounds and blocked shots).

But stay tuned, we’re still refining the list and there may be some tweaks before we’re ready to carve the teams in stone.

BUBBLE TALK

There is always a lot of bubble talk at the NCAA Tournament, but this season, only two teams are dealing with NCAA uncertainty. Ironically, they faced each other in the second round.

Pittsburgh is probably safe after beating the Orange for the third time this year, despite the Panthers’ late collapse against UNC Thursday. Syracuse is sweating it – as you could tell from Jim Boeheim’s impassioned argument that the Selection Committee ought to give his team a break because he had to miss seven games this season as an NCAA penalty.

Amazing the chairman of the Selection Committee seemed to be buying that pile of tripe.

Nobody else in the ACC is in NCAA consideration, but Clemson, Virginia Tech, Florida State and Georgia Tech all have dreams of getting an NIT bid. Clemson’s Brad Brownell was even politicking for one after his Tigers blew an 18-point second-half lead to Georgia Tech Tuesday night.

There was a time when any ACC team with an overall winning record could count on an NIT bid, but since the NCAA bought that tournament, the selection process has become a lot more difficult.

But even in the old days, 16-17 N.C. State would not be in line for an NIT bid. That didn’t stop a reporter from asking Wolfpack coach Mark Gottfried about that possibility after his team’s loss to Duke.

Gottfried was diplomatic, but he sounded very ready for a frustrating season to end.

TOURNEY SCORING UP

My stat was right – it was merely overtaken by events.

Wednesday, I noted that Duke’s 92-89 victory over N.C. State was the highest scoring regulation game in the ACC Tournament since 1990 (when Duke beat Maryland 104-84 in the quarterfinals).

It was – but amazingly, Virginia Tech and Florida State matched that point total (181 points) in the day’s last game as the Hokies dominated the Seminoles, 96-85.

Is that evidence that the shorter shot clock is having an impact?

It was a high scoring day. A year ago, 552 points were scored in the four second-round games … Wednesday, that total was 688 points.