GREENVILLE, SC — Mike Krzyzewski got the defensive boost he wanted to start the NCAA Tournament after some shaky performances in his senior season.
Duke began the retired Hall of Famer’s final journey through parenthesis with minimal stress, beating Cal State Fullerton 78-61 on Friday night.
“We played better tonight than we played,” Krzyzewski said.
First-year student Paolo Banchero scored 17 points to lead the Blue Devils (29-6), who took a double-digit lead in the opening 4 1/2 minutes. Duke led by 10 at halftime and pushed the margin to 20, avoiding the shocking outing that hit another of the sport’s top programs — Kentucky — in a 2-for-15 game the night before.
“I mean, we all watched the game last night,” said Wendell Moore Jr., who had 13 points, six rebounds and six assists. “I mean obviously we didn’t want that to happen to us too.”
The Western Region No. 2 seed has seen five players score in double figures while playing in his neighboring state, supported by vocal sections of fans eager to be part of what they hope will be the race Krzyzewski’s six-game streak to the No. 6 title: a game against seventh-seeded Michigan State and its Hall of Fame coach Tom Izzo.
Krzyzewski was happy moreover, his team used the time leading up to the tournament to regroup and recharge, while perhaps rebuilding some defensive cohesion and communication that was there earlier this season.
“Their offense really puts you in a difficult position to communicate because there’s a lot of dribbling exchanges,” Krzyzewski said, adding: “So it’s a big improvement. We’ve been a really good defensive team, but the last four games we were a very bad defensive team.
Damari Milstead scored 12 points to lead the 15th-seeded Titans (21-11), who missed 15 of 18 shots to open the game. The Big West Conference champions finished the game with 38% shooting, including 5 for 17 of the 3 needed for any mid-major to eliminate a heavy favorite.
“Even in the timeouts, I told the guys, ‘The shots we get are good shots,'” Titans coach Dedrique Taylor said. “They just weren’t falling. I think at the end of the day, Duke’s size, athleticism and strength – those shots looked a little different today than they did last Saturday” in the Big West tournament.
Duke has long started its playoffs with extra attention as a blueblood program with five NCAA titles. There’s more scrutiny this year, with any game potentially the last for the winningest coach in college basketball history, now with 1,199 wins – until TV cameras after that Krzyzewski enters the arena hand-in-hand with his wife, Mickie, and the team.
The Blue Devils haven’t been quite the same lately, potentially weighed down by the enormity of playing the final games of a legend in a 47-year career. The Blue Devils suffered a disheartening loss to rival North Carolina in Krzyzewski’s emotional last game at the Cameron Indoor Stadium and fell last weekend at Virginia Tech in the Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament championship game.
But Krzyzewski said he thought his side looked “fresher” in training, and the Blue Devils got off to a quick start which buoyed their coach.
Cal State Fullerton: The Titans were playing in their fourth NCAA tournament and first since 2018. Taylor said he had a mature team but acknowledged this stage was “a different animal.” His team didn’t look intimidated, but they couldn’t hit on the open shots he landed while struggling to manage Duke’s height and length.
“Just having the opportunity to compete with Duke, for us seniors, there’s no better team we want to play in the NCAA tournament,” said Titans forward EJ Anosike, who had 10 points and 10 rebounds. “That alone, playing against Coach K, we gave it our all.”
Duke: Moore said the team used the days leading up to the tournament to regain their defensive edge. There were positive signs on the stat sheet, namely 10 blocked shots – five by the 7-foot-1 Williams.
The first half saw several players slipping and falling on the pitch. This included Moore, who slipped on a slippery spot, got up, then slipped again and landed in a near gap.
This aggravated Moore’s hip and sent him out early in the second half to slowly pedal an exercise bike off the end of the bench before returning – with a more intensive effort from staff members to wipe the ground at each stop.
“That fucking floor was slippery,” Krzyzewski said. “I mean, both sides. So I don’t know what it was. I know it wasn’t the shoes. Nike called me and asked me to make sure I didn’t say it was the shoes.
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