It's Duke and Virginia for the ACC crown. The Blue Devils' win over the Wolfpack sets the stage for a championship game that will either re-establish Duke's place as the league's best or give the Cavaliers a new level of respect.
Jabari Parker (left) and Amile Jefferson (right) helped the Blue Devils reach the ACC title game for the 31st time.
Bob Donnan / USA TODAY Sports
By Lauren Brownlow
GREENSBORO, N.C. -- It was all too familiar territory for No. 7 Duke.
The Blue Devils were getting closer and closer to cementing an ACC championship game berth, their 31st overall and the first in three years, holding a double-digit lead over N.C. State, a team it had beaten by 35 points earlier this season.
Of course, this year, that familiar territory has often been Duke coughing up late leads and losing games as it took the air out of the ball on the attack and allowed easy baskets on the other end. Simply put: offensive failures have haunted them on defense all season long.
But the Blue Devils put those troubles behind them, making stops when they needed to in a 75-67 victory that slates them alongside No. 6 Virginia in Sunday's title game.
"We were letting our defense create offense for us," Duke's Amile Jefferson said. "We weren't just relying on outscoring these guys. We did a great job of getting stops, and that led to easy offense for our squad."
Duke started ACC play 1-2 and was coming off of a loss at Clemson when the Blue Devils hosted the sixth-ranked Cavaliers in early January. They played with a hunger and intensity, but it wasn't the prettiest game. And they nearly let a 12-point lead with five minutes to go slip away as Virginia went on a 13-4 run and even took a one-point lead with 38 seconds left.
The Blue Devils were shell-shocked and shaken, but a Rasheed Sulaimon three-pointer received a very fortunate bounce on the friendly rims at Cameron Indoor and proved to be the ultimate difference.
That game means very little to the current Blue Devils, though.
"Playing them, we're familiar with how they play. But that was about two months ago, and everything is heightened in March," Sulaimon said. "They're a better team. We're a better team. A lot is at stake tomorrow, so we can't really look at that game too, too much, other than that we're familiar with maybe some of their sets."
In addition to both teams getting a lot better over the course of the last few months, both have other similarities. For Duke, while they have two star players, there are plenty of other talented pieces that could explode at any moment. For Virginia, the Cavaliers use balanced scoring to wear down opponents, and have plenty of pieces that can be effective if another is off.
It's not a bad thing to have happen in March: the capability of anyone on the roster to step up and make plays.
"I think each team has grown, has gotten more contributions from the entire team," Jefferson said. "That's the thing that really helps teams late in the postseason, when you've got guys who come in and give you an added spark, come off the bench and give you an added spark, someone who you didn't know could get eight rebounds comes out and gets 8--10 rebounds, something like that."
Duke used to own the ACC championship, and the Blue Devils have a chance to do that again for the first time since 2011. Meanwhile, Virginia is still seeking respect. The Cavaliers won the ACC regular-season title outright, but criticism of their schedule led some to dismiss what they've accomplished. They just keep winning games, though.
As for N.C. State, the Wolfpack will just have to sit and wait on Selection Sunday to hear if their team's name is called. But Krzyzewski was impressed enough to vouch for them.
"I said to (N.C. State head coach Mark Gottfried) at the end of the game, 'I hope you guys get in,'" Krzyzewski said. "I don't understand it. They won at Tennessee. They probably should have beaten Syracuse twice. I think they've played a really good schedule, and they're got one of the best players in the country (in T.J. Warren)."
Krzyzewski went on to lament that an Atlantic 10 conference might get six teams into the tournament -- likely one more than the ACC.
But all the Wolfpack can do is wait, now.
"The committee has asked you to play a tough non-conference schedule, take your team on the road, which we did at Cincinnati our second game. Went to Tennessee and won," Gottfried said. "I think our league is a great league. I hope that we don't get penalized with our record in league when you play in a great league like ours."
And that league's tournament will conclude on Sunday in what should be a fantastic game between two very good teams -- arguably the ACC's best throughout the season.
"It's going to be two really great teams battling it out. They're a great defensive team, great all-around team," Jefferson said. "They bring guys off the bench that have a lot of energy, that really play hard. So it's about matching the intensity of the game, playing hard, knowing it's going to be a fight and just coming out to win a championship."