GREENVILLE, S.C. -- Mike Krzyzewski looked down the dais at the five players who'd refused to let his last dance come to an end, who engineered a frenetic comeback to advance to the Sweet 16 with an 85-76 win over Michigan State, and he choked back tears.
For nearly a year, he has known the finish line was in sight. He chose this path, a farewell tour on which he might relive some of his classic moments and, perhaps, pen one final chapter worthy of his epic 42-year career. The finality of Krzyzewski's run has hung like a cloud over everything Duke has done this season, each game, junior Wendell Moore Jr. said, another "last something" for Krzyzewski, but always with the knowledge that more "lasts" awaited.
Sunday was different though. When Marcus Bingham Jr. drained a pair of free throws to give Michigan State a five-point lead with 5:10 to play, the end wasn't simply a point on the horizon. It had arrived.
As Bingham lined up for his first free throw, Paolo Banchero was furious. Mark Williams was stunned. Trevor Keels hung his head. Moore clapped his hands, almost as if he was trying to wake his team from an unfathomable nightmare.
All season, Duke struggled to protect leads. On Sunday, the Blue Devils coughed up a nine-point cushion to Michigan State.
All season, Duke's players have shouldered the responsibility of scripting a fitting ending to their coach's legendary career, and too often -- in the regular-season finale against North Carolina or the ACC tournament vs. Virginia Tech -- it has seemed too heavy a burden. Now, that weight threatened to crush them entirely.
All season, the Blue Devils have worked to carve out their own space amid the overwhelming narrative of Krzyzewski's last dance. The NCAA tournament was supposed to be a fresh start, and yet the basketball gods conspired to provide one more compelling moment all about their coach. Krzyzewski vs. Tom Izzo was no doubt the NCAA's dream matchup when it placed Duke and Michigan State in the same region. It was only fitting, of course, that these two friends, who had faced off 16 times in their careers, should enjoy one last showdown, too. Now, Izzo had the upper hand.
In truth, the entire season had built to this, and if it had ended there, it might've almost felt fitting.
But it didn't end there.
Banchero will be Krzyzewski's last truly elite prospect, and he looked the part late, driving to the basket and delivering a layup to stop the bleeding after the Spartans' 11-2 run.
Keels had struggled, but he buried a 3 with 3:24 to play to tie the game. It allowed a legion of Duke fans to exhale for the first time in what felt like an eternity.
Williams, who'd been a force of nature in the paint early on, didn't take a shot in the final 14 minutes of play, but on defense, he swallowed up the Michigan State offense, playing "like a hockey goalie," Krzyzewski said.
Jeremy Roach was the forgotten member of Duke's band of lottery picks, but he drove to the basket again and again in those final minutes, attacking the basket with such determination that even Krzyzewski was stunned. Those drives, Krzyzewski said, were some of the best he'd seen in his 42 years on the sideline. And then Roach delivered the dagger -- a 3-pointer that Krzyzewski insists found the basket not through accuracy but sheer force of will.
That's what had Krzyzewski's eyes watering after the game. This season has been about him, a celebration of nearly a half-century in college basketball, but when the end finally arrived, it was those players who reached out and pulled him back from the brink.
"I think they showed their truest colors," Izzo said. "They lost at home to North Carolina. They lost to Virginia Tech. Same kind of games. We came back and went up. They [could have] just drifted into the sunset. And I thought they reached down, in Mike Krzyzewski fashion, and did an unbelievable job of kind of taking it at us."
When it was over, Moore was asked whether he was thinking about a last stand for Krzyzewski in those excruciating seconds when Bingham stood at the free throw line to pad Michigan State's lead. No, he said. He never thought about losing. He was thinking about a road trip.
Actually, two road trips, Moore said.
Twice in July, Moore, Banchero, Roach, Keels and Williams packed into a car and drove to Atlanta for the annual Peach Jam basketball games, a chance to witness their former grassroots teams face off while they watched from the stands.
"Ever since then, we just called ourselves 'The Road Crew,'" Moore said. "We knew it was going to come down to us at some point [this season]."
With five minutes left in Krzyzewski's career, the Road Crew huddled up.
"We looked into each other's eyes," Moore said, "and we knew we weren't going to lose."
Duke is on to the Sweet 16. Krzyzewski survived another trial by fire against a worthy opponent. In a game sold as a matchup of legendary coaches, Duke's players scripted their own mythology.
When Michigan State took the lead in the second half, Krzyzewski said his team looked young. It's a refrain he has echoed often this season, and he wondered if the bill had come due for packing a roster with potential lottery picks who hadn't quite found their sea legs.
"We were young for a while there," he said, "and I wondered if we were going to stay young."
Instead, this group grew up, and in doing so, the Blue Devils made their 75-year-old coach feel young once more, winning a game that belongs in the pantheon of Krzyzewski's greatest.
The end will come. It's waiting, out there on the horizon in San Francisco next weekend or in New Orleans at the Final Four.
But whenever the music stops, Sunday proved this group of Blue Devils were worthy of the dance.