In like lions

The Washington Post Sunday - - SPORTS - BY BARRY SVRLUGA barry.svrluga@wash­

Duke cel­e­brates its 75-­69 win over Notre Dame for its first ACC tour­na­ment ti­tle since 2011. The Blue Devils, the No. 5 seed, be­came the first team to win the league cham­pi­onship by win­ning four games.

new york — On the fi­nal in­bounds play that mat­tered, above the din that swirled about Bar­clays Cen­ter, Matt Jones sub­tly yelled. One word: “Jay.”

With that, Jones, a se­nior role player, took the ball from an of­fi­cial near mid­court. Si­mul­ta­ne­ously, Jayson Ta­tum — the Jay in ques­tion — snuck be­hind the Notre Dame de­fense. How a 6foot-8 gazelle can slip into a lion’s den un­no­ticed is some­thing the Ir­ish might still be try­ing to fig­ure out. Jones flicked the ball down­court.

Ta­tum, a fresh­man, slammed it home and was fouled. And with un­der half a minute left, Duke had two things of vary­ing value: a five-point lead, and its 20th ACC tour­na­ment cham­pi­onship.

Ta­tum, who has rapidly in­serted him­self into the best-play­erin-the-coun­try dis­cus­sion, led Duke with 19 points and eight re­bounds, in­clud­ing some of the most im­por­tant plays in the Blue Devils’ 75-69 vic­tory over the Ir­ish in the cham­pi­onship game Satur­day night in Brook­lyn.

His play in the fi­nal two min­utes — a free throw that gave Duke the lead for good, a full­court drive, and the jam from Jones — helped the Blue Devils sur­vive what might have been a leg­endary ef­fort from Notre Dame for­ward Bonzie Col­son, who scored 29 points and grabbed nine boards in nearly will­ing the Ir­ish to their sec­ond ACC ti­tle in three sea­sons.

Yet that lit­tle play be­tween Jones — play­ing in the 141st game of his ca­reer, a ré­sumé that in­cludes a na­tional cham­pi­onship — and Ta­tum shows how far th­ese Devils (27-8) have come in the past two months. By all ac­counts, this Duke sea­son has been dis­jointed, and at so many points in Jan­uary and Fe­bru­ary it seemed des­tined for dis­ap­point­ment. Ta­tum and fel­low fresh­men Harry Giles missed eight and nine games, re­spec­tively, with in­juries. Coach Mike Krzyzewski was out with back surgery. At one point, the Blue Devils were 2-3 in the ACC.

Now, th­ese same Blue Devils have their first ACC ti­tle since 2011. No team had won an ACC ti­tle by win­ning four games. But Duke — the pre­sea­son No. 1 in the na­tion, but the ACC tour­na­ment’s fifth seed — did just that. The Blue Devils ar­rived at Satur­day night be­cause they beat Clemson (ex­pected), Louisville (plau­si­ble) and reg­u­lar sea­son champ North Carolina (some­thing of an up­set).

“Th­ese last three teams, all of them are Fi­nal Four teams,” Krzyzewski said.

There was, too, sub­stance in those re­sults. For what amounts to the first time all year, Duke ap­pears to have its full com­ple­ment of play­ers per­form­ing with both health and con­fi­dence. “We’re get­ting bet­ter,” Krzyzewski said after the Blue Devils came from 13 down to beat North Carolina, which had han­dled them in Chapel Hill six days ear­lier.

Notre Dame had to play one fewer game to reach Satur­day night, but the Ir­ish were im­pres­sive in han­dling both Vir­ginia and Florida State, the sec­ond seed, with rel­a­tive ease. They won this tour­na­ment in 2015, putting them in a tiny, two-mem­ber club: Schools who joined the ACC since the turn of the cen­tury — a group that in­cludes Syra­cuse and Louisville — to win the ACC tour­na­ment.

Duke won the only meet­ing be­tween the teams dur­ing the reg­u­lar sea­son, and when it twice led by nine in the first half, it seemed like a re­peat per­for­mance was in the off­ing. But Notre Dame trailed by only four at the break, and when Rex Pflueger hit a three-pointer less than three min­utes into the sec­ond half, Notre Dame led for the first time all night — a lead that grew to eight with 11:35 re­main­ing.

But Duke, which used only seven play­ers, some­how found the en­ergy to come back. Down six with nine min­utes left, the Blue Devils went on an 11-2 run to take back the lead.

And then, the two plays that won it: Ta­tum, in the half-court set, un­able to find his own shot in­stead looked to Jones, who nailed a three-pointer with 49 sec­onds left, mak­ing it 71-67. And then, that lit­tle bit of com­mu­ni­ca­tion, from se­nior to fresh­man, Jones to Ta­tum — the play that not only sealed a cham­pi­onship, but showed there might be rea­son to watch this group dur­ing the next three weeks.


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