Mike Krzyzewski turned around and saw the many members of his family behind the Duke bench cheering and crying and celebrating. It had not been the easiest win of his career, but it was another one.
Sunday night, in the second round of the NCAA tournament during Krzyzewski’s final season as Duke’s head coach, facing one of his closer friends in the profession in Tom Izzo, it looked a bit dicey for a while. That Krzyzewski’s career might end here, in an arena typically used for minor league hockey.
But it didn’t. Not here. Not in the first weekend of the NCAA tournament.
With second-seeded Duke (30-6) holding on for a 85-76 win over No. 7 Michigan State, Krzyzewski continued along the milestone counter. Sweet 16 No. 26. Win No. 1,200 — more than any Division I coach in history. More special than any of that, though, was the scene going on behind him.
“Turning around and seeing all my grandkids right behind the bench and they are crying and they’re cheering,” Krzyzewski said. “Wow. I mean, God bless, how lucky. I mean, it’s so good. It’s so good. So 1,200 is great.
“But that scene was better.”
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It might have been in the second round of the tournament, but Krzyzewski compared it to an Elite Eight or Final Four game. It had the intensity and closeness those games have and the name programs that often play in them. It was a game so good — a closeout so impressive to Krzyzewski that he became emotional during the postgame news conference, telling his players, “You guys were terrific, man. I’m really proud to be your coach.”
It came complete with a Jeremy Roach chest bump of Krzyzewski toward the end — with Krzyzewski later saying jokingly, “I don’t have a chest to bump” — and a celebration of at least one more win, one more Sweet 16 in a legendary career.
“I’m proud of the fact that we’ve been there for four or five, for four decades, that we’re at least knocking on the door and five times the door completely let us in,” Krzyzewski said. “I got guys who want to win and our goal is to win the whole thing all the time, even if we’re young.”
This team, like many Duke teams, is young. And it was a team that earlier in the season, in tough situations, struggled. Didn’t close out. Didn’t come back.
Duke trailed 70-65 with 5 minutes. 10 seconds left after a Marcus Bingham Jr. free throw. Izzo wasn’t necessarily confident at this point — but it is where he wanted his team to be. To be playing at the right pace. To be in a scenario in which winning the game was a possibility.
And then Duke took over. Eliminated the five-point deficit in under two minutes. Took the lead for good after a Paolo Banchero driving layup made it 75-74 Duke, part of his game-high 19 points.
“We were like, man, we got four minutes,” Banchero said. “We can either lay down or we can turn it up. That’s really all it was, man. Just fighting. Having heart.”
It erased a strong game from Michigan State’s seniors, Gabe Brown (18 points, 4-of-6 from 3-point range) and Bingham (16 points, 10 rebounds). It was Brown and Bingham who often kept the Spartans (23-13) in the game and within distance of possibly ending Krzyzewski’s career. For Izzo, it was a missed chance at another historic win, one he’d likely remember forever. His players, too.
Before the game, he and Krzyzewski spoke briefly about their mutual appreciation for each other. After the game, in a hall inside the arena, they reminisced for a little bit before going their separate ways for the final time after facing one another.
“He’s got another game to play and I don’t know what the hell I’m going to do,” Izzo said. “Probably beating myself up for a week because not many times do you get an opportunity to be right there in the threshold of something special.
“And it slipped away.”
Four players scored at least 15 points for Duke — forwards Wendell Moore Jr., center Mark Williams and guard Roach, all of whom had 15, and Banchero. It’s the fifth time in Krzyzewski’s NCAA tournament career that he had four 15-point scorers in a game.
It gave Krzyzewski one more win. One more weekend. One more victory over another college basketball legend — although Krzyzewski quickly downplayed the significance of beating Izzo, even though it’s the fifth time he has knocked Michigan State out of the NCAA tournament, the most a coach has knocked out a single opposing team in tournament history.
It allowed the Duke players to celebrate, his grandkids to get excited. It allowed Krzyzewski at least one more milestone in his final season: win No. 1,200 with the chance to at least add one more.
“The 1,200 wins is substantial,” Krzyzewski said. “Obviously, it’s a lot of wins, but it’s a lot of wins against quality competition. And that’s what I’m most proud of. It’s not just the number of wins; it’s the competition we’ve had in order to win.
“Today was a good example of it.”
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