After helping Duke rally from a four-point deficit at halftime, Jeremy Roach burst toward the rim in the final minutes of the Sweet 16 game against Texas Tech, only to be grabbed in midair by the Red Raiders' Bryson Williams. Roach angrily slapped Williams' arm, then stood his ground as players came together, his teammates flanking him. Wendell Moore Jr. clapped his hands when the foul was called on Williams and yelled, "Yeah!" as the officials stepped in between the teams.
The moment, led by Roach, was a message: this Blue Devils squad will not be pushed around.
"It definitely was a big thing," the sophomore point guard said after Duke won 78-73 on March 24 to advance to the Elite Eight. "We were the underdogs coming into [the Texas Tech game]. I didn't see anybody having us winning this game. Everybody said we're too young and they were going to out-tough us. We just wanted to show ... that we belong here."
Roach's crucial second-half rally in the Sweet 16 win -- 13 of his 15 points, eight of which came in the final 10:07 -- punctuated a win over college basketball's top defense and solidified Duke's title intentions. It also proved he could be a clutch performer and an integral part of a lineup that includes projected 2022 lottery picks Paolo Banchero, AJ Griffin, Trevor Keels, Moore Jr. and Mark Williams. At the most critical moment of his final season, coach Mike Krzyzewski picked Roach to lead his starting lineup.
Duke now has a chance to send Coach K into retirement with his sixth national championship. A Final Four matchup in New Orleans on Saturday against North Carolina -- the first meeting between the two longtime rivals in NCAA tournament history, coming nearly a month after the Tar Heels spoiled Coach K's final home game of the regular season with a win -- will also offer a chance for redemption. Roach knows what that feels like.
"I've had ups and downs the whole time I've been at Duke," he said. "But just staying consistent and staying confident is the biggest thing. Staying committed to the work. Don't get too high on your good days, don't get too down on your bad days."
Roach's star turn in the NCAA tournament is a far cry from the turbulence of the past two months, when he lost his starting role in early February. It was the second time this season he had been bumped to reserve.
A Class of 2020 recruit, he had five stars next to his name in high school just like his blue-chip peers. In the last month of the regular season, however, Krzyzewski benched him after a cold stretch (6-for-29 from 3 in eight games), and the emergence of Griffin and Keels. The move came a month after he was briefly benched for the first time in January, after finishing 3-for-8 in Duke's 2-point loss at home to Miami.
"It gave us great size," Duke assistant Jon Scheyer said then about the team's new starting lineup, which replaced Roach with Griffin and won 76-64 against Wake Forest in the very next game. "The group we put out there to begin the game is a big team."
The switch left the 6-foot-2 Roach unsure of his role, and it showed on the court. When Glenn Farello -- who had coached Roach at St. Paul VI in Chantilly, Virginia -- traveled to watch Duke face Florida State on Feb. 19, he didn't recognize his former player, who scored zero points in 17 minutes off the bench.
Where was the tenacious high school junior who had overcome an ACL injury to become a five-star recruit? Where was the young man who had won two gold medals with USA Basketball youth squads? Where was the relentless player who had once led his high school team to a 130-128 victory in a seven-overtime affair after it was down by 15 points with five minutes to play in regulation?
"I told him, 'I want my Jeremy back,'" Farello said. "My Jeremy is a fierce competitor and he has a chip on his shoulder and he's always trying to prove himself. I just thought he needed one of those pep talks and a reminder of what he's been through."
That conversation with Farello -- "They need you," he told him -- helped Roach refocus. His parents helped too. And he shares a special bond with his older sister, Chloe, and brother, Jordan, who stay connected via daily conversations and nonstop text messages.
"Those two keep me grounded," he said. "We group text, we FaceTime. We're on the phone, pretty much, a couple hours a day, every day. I love those two. I wouldn't be here without them. They gave me the confidence to stay committed to the work, stay consistent and told me, 'Don't worry about what anyone else is saying, just keep being you and keep believing.'"
Mark Williams, Roach's roommate, has seen his friend navigate the changes all season. They'd talk while playing "Fortnite" and listening to hip-hop star Gunna's music in their apartment.
"Down the stretch, he's made a lot of huge plays, whether it's finishes, stops or making the right pass," Williams said about his "cool" teammate, who has stepped into a leadership role during Duke's tournament run.
"[Roach] has always been able to step up in big moments, and so we trust him, 100%," Banchero said, after Duke's Sweet 16 victory. "We've trusted him the whole year."
Roach's late-season impact is tangible. He is averaging 12.7 PPG, 3.7 APG and 1.2 SPG in the NCAA tournament for a team that is ranked first in adjusted offensive efficiency on KenPom. With Roach on the floor during the tournament, Duke has averaged 114 points per 100 possessions, per hooplens.com. The Blue Devils have made 61% of their shots inside the arc and 40% of their 3-point attempts with him in the game, too.
"The resolve of Jeremy Roach was incredible," Krzyzewski said after the Sweet 16 game. "His drives against that defense were so strong, so determined."
For Duke, Roach was the catalyst in San Francisco. A fist bump from Steph Curry prior to the Texas Tech win boosted his spirits. And his teammates seemed to follow him wherever he went, on and off the court.
After the Blue Devils' Elite Eight win against Arkansas, Roach held up his phone as Moore, Keels and Williams walked next to him and laughed as he pointed to someone on the screen. It was clear that the joy Roach had fought to regain this season had returned.
Farello called Roach after the win and told him he finally looked like the player he'd coached in high school. His effort in San Francisco also reminded Farello of a conversation he had with Krzyzewski on his February trip to Cameron Indoor Stadium.
"I actually said to Coach K, 'I appreciate you still believing in him,'" Farello said. "[Krzyzewski] said, 'Coach, I promise you, I will never stop believing in him.'"
That faith has carried Duke all the way to New Orleans.