x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Krzyzewski's six-year itch comes to an end

Ahead of their semi-final against Virginia, the Duke coach calls this Blue Devils team one of the best.

In the Duke locker room after the game, Krzyzewski told his players to cherish the moment.
In the Duke locker room after the game, Krzyzewski told his players to cherish the moment.

HOUSTON // The moment the final buzzer sounded on Sunday, Mike Krzyzewski flung both arms in the air, turned towards his assistants and embraced them in a giant bear hug. It was a reaction befitting a head coach headed to his first Final Four, not his 11th.

But it has been a while. Mid- majors have crashed Final Fours, Baylor University have rebuilt a programme from the depths of scandal and no need to remind those in Durham, North Carolina, that they have won two national titles since Krzyzewski's Duke team last played in a Final Four in 2004. And in an NCAA tournament that has seen several smaller schools steal the limelight, Duke's 78-71 win over Baylor in the South Region final restored some order to the college basketball world and satisfied a six-year itch of a legendary coach and passionate fan base.

"They got me to a Final Four finally," Krzyzewski said, jokingly. "It's not about the moments I have been in, it's the moments that your players put you in right now. This team will really be brothers forever. It's as close a team as I have had." Falling short of the Final Four for five consecutive seasons is considered a drought at only a handful of blue-blooded programmes, but Duke are one of them. And criticism of a programme that appeared to have plateaued only intensified during a season in which Duke were viewed as a good team but not national title favourites.

On this weekend, Krzyzewski even turned prickly during a news conference in which he criticised a reporter for using the word "meltdown" to describe the tournament struggles since 2004. Duke's seniors - Jon Scheyer, Brian Zoubek and Lance Thomas - wanted to advance to their first Final Four for themselves but also for their coach. "I don't think it's just another Final Four for him," Zoubek said. "He has been right there with the senior class. He has had to deal with all the criticism, the hatred that comes with struggling."

In the Duke locker room after the game, Krzyzewski told his players that they are one of his favourite teams, and that they need to cherish the moment and enjoy the emotions before focusing on West Virginia - Duke's opponents in Saturday's national semi-final. But the Blue Devils (33-5) did not have an easy path to Indianapolis. They were top seeds in the region but had to play a virtual road game since Reliant Stadium was just three hours from Baylor's campus.

And they needed Nolan Smith to play the game of his life - scoring a career-high 29 points and winning the region's best player honours - to compensate for the struggles of Kyle Singler. In the end, the game was decided by what had been Duke's calling cards all season: defence and rebounding. After Baylor managed to hang with Duke on the boards in the first half, the Blue Devils dominated the rebounding battle in the second, giving themselves ample opportunities at second-chance points with offensive rebounds.

One crucial sequence occurred with 3mins 36secs left in the game. After Smith made his first free throw, the Baylor coach, Scott Drew, shouted to his players: "Box out!" The second free throw attempt was missed, but Duke's Thomas batted the ball back out and into the hands of the hottest scorer on the court, Smith, who buried a three-pointer to give Duke a three-point lead. Drew, in a rare show of frustration, kicked the ground.

Two minutes later, Thomas rebounded an errant Singler shot, converted a dunk, drew a foul and swished the free throw. The lead was eight, the Final Four berth was all but secured. * With agencies