Unbelievable WOW oh my sweet Jaysus and hallelujah! FINAL FOUR. FINAL F*ING FOUR!
I really can't believe it.
First off, if you were looking for hardcore analysis of the game, look elsewhere. I was so friggin' tense that I lived and died with each possession. I was a nervous horse with blinders. Any wide-ranging perspective was utterly missing from my purview. Of the two hours of game action, I probably spent an hour of it pacing, a half hour sitting in my computer chair biting my fingernails to the quick, and a half hour screaming in triumph or horror. I know I yelled some things at Quincy Acy that I'm not proud of. I almost attacked my tv every time he got a dunk or a block and did his best impression of the Kevin Garnett scream. So my game experience was heavy on emotion, light on reason.
That being said, there are a lot of bases to touch. Let's start with history.
Baylor is exactly the kind of team who would have beat us in years past. Athletic and explosive, they had a couple shooters, tall, springy big men, and two guys (Dunn and Carter) who could penetrate at will. At the end of the first half, when they had three steals in a row and went on the mini-run, it looked like a carbon copy of Duke vs. LSU, Duke vs. Michigan State, Duke vs. West Virginia. Andre Dawkins hit a gigantic 3 to reduce the deficit before the break, but there were a lot of memories going through my head while I watched Greg Gumbel's mouth move. And those memories begot fear.
Here's what I understood during the intermission: if we played timid, they would blow us out. Not just beat us; destroy us. Just like we'd been destroyed in those other games. The blueprint was there. The last two minutes of half number one showed how it could all play out. But if we attacked the zone, shot with confidence, hit some big threes, and avoided turnovers, they would always have trouble scoring and the game would be close.
At some point just before tip, I sent a message my friend Brian. "We always knew there would be a challenge for the upperclassmen. Let's see what they've got." It marked a change in my mental climate. I went from fretting to hope. And when Scheyer came out and hit a big three to start the second half, that mindset was vindicated.
I ride Coach K to a certain extent, but I cannot emphasize how much I loved the idea to press. Did it produce a single turnover? I don't know. Not many, that's for sure. But it slowed them down, and it sent a message: you are not the aggressor. We put pressure on you, not the other way around. As a psychological maneuver, it was flawless, and it even worked on the practical side. It took Baylor even further out of their offense, and knocked off a good five to eight seconds of each possession. They forced so many shots out of their half court set, and it put the game squarely on our terms. We made the choice to stay tough, stay even, and count on our experience to carry us over the top when the pressure came. A total Krzyzewski coup.
And it worked. So, so well. Nolan Smith needs a fucking monument in K-Ville. I'm serious. How tough is he? How ballsy? He saved the best game of his life for this total slugfest. When I wrote a preview in early November, I called him "easily the most important player on the court." He'd lacked a little toughness in the past, but he worked his ass off this summer, and now it's like the dude is made of iron. He's so good and so critical to our success that at one point in the second half when he slipped on a patch of water running up the court, I thought he twisted a knee and actually screamed "NO!" a few times. My girlfriend, who'd been ignoring my antics up to that point, was alarmed enough to take her headphones out and ask what happened. Then Nolan rose, pointed at the puddle, and ran downcourt, and my heart survived another day.
Look at those numbers. 29 points, 9-17 from the field (and really, at least 5 of those misses rolled in and out), 4-6 from three, 7-8 from the line. He's a stud. He has 74 points in four games, and it would be more if they hadn't rested him after he scored 10 in the first round. As we speak, he's neck and neck with Da'Sean Butler for tournament MVP (Butler has 69 points). He carried us yesterday. Without him, we're home.
If he has the monument, Scheyer needs at least a plaque. His recent shooting struggles obviously rocked his confidence, and in the first half against Purdue he looked pretty out of sorts. But he never quit, and he adjusted his game to score on drives and free throws in the second half of that game. Together with Nolan, he brought us out of the Big-10 muck style and delivered us to the elite 8. Yesterday, like an oppressive heat wave yielding to rain, the slump finally broke. 20 points, only one turnover, and 5 threes, all of which were huge. Throughout his struggles, he never doubted, and eventually he found himself in the clear. A total warrior.
But anybody who knows anything about basketball will tell you that the ulimate difference in that game was the boards. We had 41 rebounds to their 35, and 23 of those were offensive. Zoubek and Thomas were totally lost on offense, and Baylor threw down some pretty sick dunks, but they and the Plumlees just grinded and grinded and grinded. They hit the glass hard every time, no matter what, and somehow it actually wore Baylor down. I didn't expect it; Baylor looked more athletic. They were certainly better jumpers, and I had to guess that after our battle with Purdue they had more endurance, too. But Zou and LT and the Plumdogs wiped them out. This type of punishment-by-size was missing from Duke's arsenal since 2002. We usually just conceded the interior and hoped the threes fell. Not anymore.
What's really incredible is that we did it all without Singler. He had a rough game from the start, when the ill-advised choice to put him on Dunn resulted in two quick fouls. He never found his rhythm, had some layups rim out, and finished the game 0-10 from the field. I didn't think it was his fault, and he's carried us enough throughout the season that I'm not worried. But to win without any offensive contribution from him is remarkable.
This team is so, so tough. Maybe you're sick of hearing that sentiment, but believe me, I'll scream it to the clouds. They've overcome personal tragedy, a timid past, road troubles, and in-game adversity. They're a unit. To use Coach K's metaphor, they're a closed fist. You only had to see Zoubek screaming encouragement at his teammates, especially Miles Plumlee, after he fouled out. You only had to see Scheyer take that second three without a flicker of doubt to put Baylor away. You only had to see Nolan step up and throw his icy stare at Quincy Acy after the bearded Bear shoved Scheyer. On the sidelines two minutes later, as the refs conferred, Nolan still had that look. But Acy, who'd been barking and screaming all game when times were good, wore the expression of a beaten child. Enough said.
I realize I may be rambling at this point, but for Duke fans who've had to hear their players called weak and pussies and everything else for almost a decade, this is the best kind of redemption. I can honestly say that yesterday's win was my favorite college basketball game of all time. It represented a type of personal growth, of actualization that everyone else wanted to doubt. Duke couldn't have won this game in 2009, or any of the years before. But they learned something from those losses. They learned their shortcomings, and they learned what it would take to compete with the Baylors of the world. And they worked and worked and persevered until they could beat a team of superior athletes rooted on by thousands of their home fans in the second largest regional crowd in history. They learned how to thrive, rather than wilt, on the biggest stage. Maybe you'll scoff to hear me call Duke an underdog story, but that's what we are. This run is against the odds.
Hate Duke all you want. I know people will. But I hope they understand what they're hating. It's not some kind of privileged upper middle class team of entitled dandies. Not anymore. If you hate Duke, you're hating a group of kids who were told for their entire college careers that they weren't good enough. You're hating kids who were told that because they weren't from the streets, they would never have the same passion, the same skills, could never compete with the best. You're hating a team that took more abuse than anyone in America. You're hating a team who operated with a perpetual target on their backs. You're hating players who were beaten down and humbled, and could have chosen to quit. You're hating the team who chose instead to believe in each other, and unite under the common banner of past failure. You're hating the guys who got their asses kicked by the junkyard dogs, and then became the junkyard dogs.
And you're hating a team that just made the Final Four. I don't know if they'll win against West Virginia, but I can guarantee this: they won't be scared. And that's a victory they'll celebrate forever.