PROVIDENCE, R.I. — Both higher seeds won on Saturday here at the Dunkin’ Donuts Center, but their routes to victory were drama-filled, loud and incredibly tense.
“The tournament is crazy, and you saw two games today where all four teams won a half,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said.
He’s absolutely right.
Approximately two hours after Miami got one heck of a punch from Wichita State, No. 4 seed Duke took on a torrent from 12th-seeded Yale. The Blue Devils beat the Bulldogs 71-64 in the second round here in the Creative Capital, but not before Yale cut what was once a 27-point deficit to three with 33.5 seconds to go.
What an environment. The crowd was full throat. The cozy surroundings of the Dunk made for one of the most intimate and raucous first-weekend environments you could ever ask from from a host site. Bulldog fans showed up by the thousands. The game felt in doubt with three minutes to go.
“Every person dreams of playing in the NCAA Tournament and winning a game,” Yale senior Brandon Sherrod said. “And to be the first team in the school’s history to win one is unbelievable, and to go out like this as a senior is really second to none. You can’t beat that experience.”
Those Yale players will hear the roars forever.
The Bulldogs, who won their first NCAA Tournament game in program history on Thursday, lost their best chance to get the game to OT — or to win — when Sherrod failed to convert a reverse layup after a beautiful double backcut play with 20 seconds remaining.
But for Yale, getting to its first NCAA Tournament in 54 years, and then keeping up with a recent Ivy trends (the league has five NCAA Tournament wins since 2010), it’s more than enough. James Jones waited 17 years to reach the NCAAs, finally broke through, and earned a win. Many other coaches fall well short of this.
“I told these guys in the locker room, there are 351 teams that play Division I basketball,” Jones said. “We made it down to the final 32, and we’re three possessions away from the being in the final 16. I couldn’t be more proud of them, especially our seniors who are going to be graduating and have done so much for us over four years.”
Duke is in the Sweet 16 because of two people: Grayson Allen and Brandon Ingram. They scored 19 of Duke’s 23 second half points. The Blue Devils won 71-64. Allen led all scorers with 29. Ingram added 25. Both hit critical free throws down the stretch.
Huge moment for Ingram who, on the wholel, did nothing to dissuade scouts who already have him pegged above Ben Simmons for the No. 1 pick. Ingram said he took 100 foul shots in Duke’s Friday practice.
“I knew I was there for a reason,” Ingram said.
Makai Mason, who set a Yale NCAA Tournament record in the first round with 31 points, was 2-for-12 from the field and had eight points. Sherrod led Yale with 22 points. Two-time Ivy League Player of the Year Justin Sears finished his college career with a double-double (12 points, 11 rebounds).
“Makai has been all over the news for the last two days,” Jones said. “Everybody and their grandmother has heard about him now, so certainly he wasn’t a surprise to Duke.”
Taking Mason out of the mix didn’t completely end Yale, because this was arguably — taking into account both ends of the floor — the best rebounding team in the country this season. Sherrod and Sears kept the rally alive with second-chance points, and Yale’s pressure got Duke off its kilter. That 1-3-1 made it very interesting late.
Sherrod hit a couple of huge shots to get the lead to seven, and then six, and eventually three.
“I think during that moment I was just saying, this is March,” Sherrod said. “This is why I love March. This is why I play basketball. This is what you live for as a student-athlete and as a college basketball player at the Division I level.”
Ingram told me on the walk back to the locker room that the Yale push felt like more of a threat to Duke’s tournament chances than UNC Wilmington’s game-long punching match. Mason Plumlee said the game didn’t feel like one the team was going to give away. His animated speech to the players during a timeout became the defining shot of Duke’s win.
Plumlee’s urgency matched the din of the crowd. This kind of environment can’t be recreated at the professional level. Yale along the front row fans were slamming their ruby hands against the hockey boards.
“We had the home fans. It felt like a home game, and I was feeding off the energy from the crowd as well,” Sherrod said. “We wanted to give them what they bought their tickets for, wanted to give them their money’s worth with the effort that we put in in the second half.”
This Duke team remains so interesting because it’s so clearly flawed yet is managing to survive in different ways in many different games. This is clear: If Allen and Ingram can be as reliable as they’ve been the past two games, they will be in every tournament game they play in from here on out.
Duke will play the winner of Oregon-Saint Joseph’s, in the West Regional semifinals.