HOUSTON – As his younger teammates bounced around one side of the Duke locker room in celebration, the team’s elder sat apart from the revelers – who are still blissfully ignorant of what the other locker room feels like – and vacillated between shock and relief.
The three freshmen who start and star for the Blue Devils know naught but winning; they came to Duke to beat other teams and that’s what they’ve done, 33 times now. Who knows if they will save their slips of cuttings from that net, or if they’re saving space on their walls for NBA trophies?
Coach Mike Krzyzewski is heading to his 12th Final Four, tied with late UCLA coach John Wooden for the most. The Blue Devils almost always win at this stage under Coach K, who is 11-2 in Elite Eight games and has won a record 86 NCAA tournament games.
But Quinn Cook, one of just two seniors and four upperclassmen on the precocious Blue Devils, spent four years earning that net neck-warmer, and he wouldn’t part with it during any of his many postgame media obligations.
“That’s why you come here: to win,” said Cook. “There’s a legacy here … we, myself and (junior captain Amile Jefferson), we remember how hard it was when we lost to Louisville in the Elite Eight two years ago. We just wanted to get it done.”
Quinn committed to play for Duke just eight months after the Blue Devils won the 2010 national title, signing up with a program where deep tournament runs are the norm.
But not so much, lately. Cook’s tenure has included a pair of first-round exits and one loss to Louisville in the Elite Eight. Now, it will finish with a Final Four appearance.
While the Bulldogs didn’t start an underclassmen, the Blue Devils apparently had a more important type of game experience: GU has never won an Elite Eight game while Krzyzewski is now 12-2 with a Final Four trip on the line.
“We’re judged by whether we win or lose in this gantlet and too much is then forgotten about the journey that each of these teams made,” Krzyzewski said. “The journey that Gonzaga made to get to 35 wins, are you kidding me? But somebody is going to throw up on them that they haven’t gone to a Final Four. Come on.”
The Blue Devils have won four national titles under Krzyzewski but they came because experienced players like Christian Laettner, Bobby Hurley, Jon Scheyer, Shane Battier and Kyle Singler took the reins while young Grant Hill, Carlos Boozer and Andre Dawkins played merely supplemental roles.
Many talented players go to Durham, North Carolina, to win, but Cook hasn’t played with a group of freshmen like this year’s crop. Jahlil Okafor, Justise Winslow and Tyus Jones, along with Cook, are the team’s top four scorers.
The assumption is that Okafor is locked in a battle with Karl-Anthony Towns of Kentucky to be the No. 1 pick in June’s NBA draft. While his offensive numbers weren’t great on Sunday – nine points on 10 shots – he played a key role on defense. He suppressed GU center Przemek Karnowski, who only scored four points, tied for his lowest offensive output of the season.
Winslow scored seven straight points late in the game, turning a two-point lead with 4:32 left into a comfortable cushion with 2:38 to go.
Jones may be the least pro-ready of the freshman trio but was named the Houston Regional’s Most Outstanding Player and scored or assisted on 18 of Duke’s 31 first-half points and came up with a pair of critical second-half steals.
“Those guys aren’t freshmen, man,” Cook said. “I’ve been telling everybody all year they’re not freshmen. They play so experienced and they’ve played in big games. It was another big game today.”
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