Live by the nail-biter, die by the nail-biter.
An agonizing nail-biter. As they always are. For somebody.
Michigan State ended Duke’s 2019 season Sunday evening, 68-67. It was a game of back-and-forth swings and the Spartans made the final swing, a 5-0 run that gave them a 68-66 lead that survived three Duke efforts to pull even.
Maybe Duke’s luck ran out. Or maybe under-seeded Michigan State was just a little better.
And, yes, if you had missed-free-throws as the likely cause for Duke’s demise, then raise your hand.
Foul-shooting has long been recognized as one of the chinks in Duke’s armor and it proved a deadly one. The Blue Devils made only 8-of-13 from the line, the biggest miss by R.J. Barrett.
I’ll also accept turnovers. Seventeen of them.
Barrett credited Michigan State.
“They were in the key. They ran at the ball and getting little tips and stuff like that. So they played great defense.”
The final, agonizing minutes will be talked about in the Duke world for the long off-season and not in a good way.
Trailing 63-59 with four minutes left, Duke went on a 7-0 run, a 3-pointer by Barrett sandwiched by two-pointers from Javin DeLaurier and Zion Williamson. Williamson’s gave Duke a 66-63 lead, with 1:44 left.
Minneapolis beckoned. So close.
But this Duke team hasn’t always executed the close-out-down-the-stretch portion of the game.
Duke did not execute down the stretch.
Cassius Winston got inside off the dribble, drew the defense to him and dropped the pass to Xavier Tillman, for the easy layup.
“I thought Winston was a difference-maker,” Mike Krzyzewski said. “And whenever we did get a three-, four-point lead or it was close, it was close all the time. But he made big plays, either scoring or assisting. He’s the best guard we’ve played against.”
Then came a crucial possession equal parts empty and ugly. Williamson spent the possession on the perimeter until Barrett drove inside and missed in traffic.
The Spartans perfectly executed another set, a screen freeing up Kenny Goins for the open 3.
Down by two, but with 34 seconds left and the best player in the country ready to embellish his legend.
But Williamson touched the ball only once, beyond the arc. He passed to Barrett, who badly missed a 3.
Duke ball out of bounds.
Barrett got the ball, bulled to the rim and drew the foul. Missed the first, made the second and MSU ran out the clock on their in-bounds to secure the victory.
Blame Williamson for not posting up and demanding the ball, blame Barrett for not getting him the ball, blame Mike Krzyzewski for not calling a timeout and setting up a play.
Or credit Michigan State for making the stops.
“I think what they did was, I think when I catch it on the post they would bring or two or three defenders, so I wouldn’t be able to do spin. And it was great defense obviously.”
But without putting too fine a point on it, with Duke’s season on the line, the most transcendent talent of his generation did not touch the ball in the paint once in Duke’s final three possessions.
Despite being the top seed and boasting arguably the two best players in the country, we all knew Duke had flaws; foul shooting, 3-point shooting, depth, youth.
Another cropped up in the NCAAs, slow starts. Duke fell behind MSU 6-2, 10-5 and 16-9.
Duke finally got it going and appeared to seize control of the game with a 14-2 run to take a 30-21 lead, with 5:24 left in the half.
Cam Reddish-- back on the court after missing the Virginia Tech game--had five of those points.
Duke didn’t score the rest of the half, a disastrous span that included five turnovers and five missed shots.
It was 34-30 at the half.
It took Duke about four minutes to catch up and the two teams traded baskets for awhile, most of Duke’s coming from Williamson and Barrett, with some valuable contributions from Javin DeLaurier.
Over the final 19 minutes neither team led by more than five points.
Duke took a 52-48 lead on a Williamson 3-pointer but Michigan State scored five straight points.
Back and forth.
Until Duke ran out of time.
“They played their hearts out all year,” Krzyzewski summed up. “These guys have been an incredible group for me to coach, especially at this time in my career to be around a group that you love being around every day that have accomplished so much and really have been like have -- had to lead the whole year with the tension and the schedule and everything else, and they’ve handled things so beautifully. And I feel bad for them. They’re deserving of, like, special things and they have had a special year. But this not going to the Final Four is obviously a huge disappointment for us.”
Duke outrebounded Michigan State 42-31, out-shot them from the field 46 percent to 43 percent and committed only nine fouls. But the Spartans took 13 more shots from the field as they turned it over only seven times, five fewer than the combined totals of Barrett (seven) and Williamson (five).
Williamson led everyone with 24 points and 14 rebounds. Barrett had 21 points, DeLaurier 10 points, 11 rebounds and 3 blocks. But Jones (four points) and Reddish (eight) didn’t give them the kind of support Duke needed.
Winston had 20 points, 10 rebounds and only one turnover for the Spartans.
Duke ends its season at 32-6.
Links for this game are here.
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Alex O ‘Connell
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