Duke rips Arkansas to reach Final Four

SAN FRANCISCO — There was a hushed moment among the 17,739 inside sold-out Chase Center moments before the national anthem was to be played Saturday night in advance of the NCAA Tournament West Region final between Duke and Arkansas when a Razorbacks fan yelled: “This is a retirement party!’’

The fan was referring, of course, to legendary Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, who has been on his farewell tour this season after 42 brilliant seasons with the Blue Devils — with any loss in this tournament sending him into retirement.

By night’s end, though, the retirement party would have to wait until at least next Saturday night in New Orleans, where Duke — which overwhelmed Arkansas 78-69 Saturday — will play the winner of East Region final Sunday between Saint Peter’s and North Carolina at the Final Four.

Either opponent would present a fascinating matchup, because Duke will either be trying to survive the irrepressible and historic run of No. 15 seed Saint Peter’s to get to the national championship game …

… or will have ACC rival North Carolina standing in its way.

A smiling Mike Krzyzewski waves to the crowd after cutting down the net after Duke’s 78-69 win over Arkansas in the Elite Eight.
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North Carolina, of course, ruined Krzyzewski’s final home game at Cameron Indoor Stadium, an awkward 94-81 Duke loss on March 5, after which Krzyzewski apologized to the crowd, calling the Blue Devils’ performance “unacceptable.’’

If Krzyzewski has to lose in the Final Four to end his career, who do you think he’d rather lose to? Bet the ranch on Saint Peter’s and Shaheen Holloway over North Carolina and Hubert Davis.

There were two moments in the postgame press conference when Krzyzewski halted a reporter’s question. The first came when the players were asked whether they wanted one more crack at the Tar Heels.

“You know what? It’s going to be an honor for us to go against whoever is the regional champion of that region,’’ Krzyzewski said, interrupting.

Krzyzewski then bristled a moment later when a reporter asked his players about sending him out with a sixth NCAA title. He again interrupted the question and said: “Enough about doing it for the old man, here. We’re not going to do it unless we all own it. We all own this. That’s what we’re playing for.’’

In a lighter moment, Krzyzewski looked at his players sitting on the podium to his left and said: “I’m so proud of you and happy for you. You crossed the bridge, man.’’

Duke players and coach Mike Krzyzewski are presented with the regional champion trophy after their win over Arkansas.
Duke players and coach Mike Krzyzewski are presented with the regional champion trophy after their win over Arkansas.
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About 30 minutes earlier, Duke freshman star Paolo Banchero, who scored 16 points, had seven rebounds and was named the Most Outstanding Player for the regional, was first to climb the ladder to begin the net-cutting ceremony.

Krzyzewski was the last to climb, bowing to his players once he reached the top rung and feigning making a dunk before snipping the final precious piece of nylon.

He deserves to bask in the fact that this will be his 13th Final Four appearance, breaking the long-standing record he recently held with UCLA legend John Wooden.

“This game gets you to the Promised Land,’’ Krzyzewski said of the Final Four.

“You come to Duke looking to get to moments like this,’’ Wendell Moore Jr. said after scoring 14 points.

“We knew what we were capable of, and we just wanted to show the world,’’ AJ Griffin said after scoring 18 points.

“Final Fours are big and national championships … that’s what you put banners up for,’’ Krzyzewski went on. “You don’t put a banner up for beating somebody. You put a banner up for beating somebodies.”

Mike Krzyzewski gives his Duke team instruction during their 78-69 Elite Eight victory over Arkansas.
Mike Krzyzewski gives his Duke team instruction during their 78-69 Elite Eight victory over Arkansas.

Duke, the No. 2 seed, controlled the game essentially from the outset, dominating No. 4 seed Arkansas in the paint and boat-racing the Razorbacks on offense.

The Blue Devils (32-6), who were led by 18 points from A.J. Griffin, built a 45-33 halftime lead, but got a little sloppy early in the second half. That created one nervy moment when Arkansas (28-9) went on a 9-2 run to cut the lead to 53-48 with 13:13 remaining in the game.

That 13:13 mark turned out to be the witching hour for Arkansas.

Krzyzewski called timeout to settle his team down, and whatever he said in that huddle worked. The Blue Devils went on a 10-0 run out of that timeout to take a 63-48 lead and seize control of the game, forcing Arkansas coach Eric Musselman to call a desperation timeout with 10:18 remaining.

There was little Musselman could say to his players to save the game, however. Duke was simply better in all phases.

“They were just the better team,’’ Jaylin Williams, who led Arkansas with 19 points and 10 rebounds, said.

“I’ll be shocked if Duke is not national champions in a week and a half,’’ Musselman said.

Hold the retirement party.

“Let’s go to New Orleans,’’ Krzyzewski said.

There isn’t a better place on the planet for a party — to celebrate a retirement or a championship.


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