After chugging along to 12 straight wins and looking darn-near unbeatable Thursday night, it’s time to throw the brakes on the train that had Duke bound straight to Indianapolis for the Final Four.
The Blue Devils turned in one of the most perplexing performances of the season in the ACC semifinals, losing to Notre Dame 74-64. That ruined a traditional matchup to send off the ACC tournament in Greensboro (until the year 2020, at least), setting up a Fighting Irish vs. North Carolina final.
"Really, for about the first 24 minutes, I'm not sure — I don't know who we were coaching tonight," coach Mike Krzyzewski said. "We weren't talking, we weren't doing anything. We weren't following instructions. It was like an out-of-body experience."
Duke hadn’t lost since Jan. 28 against the Irish in South Bend. In between the two meetings was the 90-60 rout of Notre Dame in Durham, which featured Duke shooting 81 percent in the most impressive first half of the season. The opening 20 minutes against the Fighting Irish this time around, though, was disastrous.
The Blue Devils were facing their biggest halftime deficit of the year, down 41-26. The defensive strategies and matchup zones that confused N.C. State were not effective against Notre Dame, and especially reserve Bonzie Colson. The reserve post player found success attacking the Duke zones from the free throw line, finishing with 11 first half points and 17 for the game, tying his career high.
Notre Dame, which earned its first berth in a conference title game, will face No. 19 North Carolina, the tournament's fifth seed, on Saturday night in the title game.
"One of the things I used to say all the time when we were in the Big East, 'Let's get to Saturday,'" coach Mike Brey said. "Darn if we're not playing for it ... and I've never been more confident of a group."
Duke did mount a comeback late – unlike the ones on the road against Virginia and at home versus North Carolina, this one was too little, too late.
Justise Winslow, who payed such a poor first half (zero points) that Mike Krzyzewski benched him for the start of the second, rose to the occasion down the stretch. During one stretch, he scored six straight points, tipping in Jahlil Okafor’s missed free throw, dunking off of his own miss and hitting a jumper to cut the lead to nine, 61-52, with 8 minutes, 4 seconds to play.
Duke cut the lead to seven with 4:55 left, thanks to another jumper by Winslow, and one possession later it was Okafor with a jumper to cut it to five.
Out of the under-4 media timeout, Jerian Grant made two free throws to put Notre Dame ahead 68-61, but Tyus Jones hit his first 3 of the game moments later to put Duke to within four at 68-64.
Okafor went to the free throw line with 1:48 remaining and the score the same, but he missed twice. The next possession saw Pat Connaughton hit an off-balance jumper from the free throw line to beat the shot clock and essentially deal the comeback attempt its final blow, putting the Fighting Irish up 70-64 with 1:13 remaining.
Quinn Cook immediately turned the ball over on the next possession, and a brick by Tyus Jones on a 3-point attempt in the final seconds confirmed that there would be no late-game magic for Duke.
The Blue Devils were cold from 3 all game, shooting just 3 of 17 from deep. Okafor helped offset that with 28 points inside.
"Hopefully, we're still in a point in time where we can learn from this," Krzyzewski said. "Next game we play, there is no more learning. You've got to do it."