CHARLOTTE — The stands were empty and the television crew was packing up, the game between top-seeded Duke and No. 8 seed Michigan long since over. But there stood Wolverine sophomore Darius Morris on the arena floor, re-enacting the exact shooting motion in the exact spot where just an hour earlier he could have completed a stunning Michigan comeback.
The real thing — a floater from just inside the free throw line with two seconds remaining Sunday — bounced off the back rim and the Blue Devils escaped with a thrilling 73-71 victory over Michigan in a West Region second-round matchup.
Duke will now face Arizona in the Sweet 16 on Thursday in Anaheim, Calif. Coach Mike Krzyzewski, meanwhile, became just the second coach in Division I college basketball history to win 900 games.
But that historic achievement came by the slimmest of margins.
The Blue Devils led by 15 points in the second half, but the Wolverines staged a furious charge in the waning moments. Freshman Kyrie Irving, in his second game since returning from a serious toe injury, hit a bank shot with 32 seconds left that gave Duke a three-point lead and proved to be the game-winning basket.
Morris, though, came right back down the floor for a layup. Duke senior Nolan Smith then missed the second of two free throws with 8.7 seconds remaining. That set up the exhilarating — or heartbreaking, depending on whom you talked to — final sequence, as Morris raced down the floor, trying to beat the clock and force overtime.
“I was thinking: ‘Well, at least we’re not going to lose right here. We can still win in overtime,’ ” said Duke’s Ryan Kelly, who stepped up to defend Morris as he drove into the lane. “Fortunately it rimmed off, fortunately for us. We made the stop that counted there at the end.”
Duke entered halftime with a four-point lead, but early in the second half, Krzyzewski saw a lethargic group that didn’t resemble a defending national champion. So the legendary coach called a timeout and screamed at his team, ripping off his jacket in disgust.
Smith, the ACC player of the year, got the message loud and clear. He proceeded to score 10 straight points, including a three-pointer, an ankle-breaking pull-up jumper over Michigan’s Tim Hardaway Jr., and a three-point play.
The run ignited his teammates, and by the time senior Kyle Singler (13 points) hit two free throws, the Blue Devils had turned a two-point lead into 15 in less than six minutes. For the game, Smith led all scorers with 24 points.
“I think the flip that I switched today was I don’t want to take this Duke jersey off,” Smith said, prompting Krzyzewski to turn to his star guard and ask: “Where is that switch? Keep it on.”
But Michigan refused to back down. Coach John Beilein countered by exclusively using a 1-3-1 zone defense to keep Smith and Duke’s bevy of guards from penetrating so easily into the lane.
The move worked as the Wolverines went on a 7-0 run that closed the deficit to eight. Then, when Duke went ahead by double digits once again, Michigan went on a 13-2 and trailed 70-69 after Hardaway (15 points) hit a three-pointer with 1 minute 28 seconds remaining.
But after a Duke timeout, Irving, who finished with 11 points off the bench, probed Michigan’s zone and banked home his only field goal of the game to push the lead back to three.
“We wouldn’t be going forward if [Irving] didn’t play today,” Krzyzewski said.
Afterward, Morris was despondent in the Michigan locker room, struggling to control his breathing, his eyes red from tears. When Smith missed his free throw and the final shot had left his hands, “I thought we were going to overtime,” said Morris, who finished with a team-high 16 points. “Whenever you have an opportunity to get to that Sweet 16, it’s gonna hurt.”