GREENVILLE, S.C. — Duke began retiring Hall of Famer Mike Krzyzewski’s final NCAA Tournament with minimal stress, beating Cal State Fullerton 78-61 on Friday night.
Freshman Paolo Banchero scored 17 points to lead the Blue Devils (29-6), who jumped to a double-digit lead in the first 4 1/2 minutes and remained in control throughout. Duke led by 10 at halftime and pushed the margin to 20 midway through the second half, avoiding the shocking exit that befell another of the sport’s top programs – Kentucky – in a 2-vs.-15 matchup a night earlier.
The West Region’s No. 2 seed had five players score in double figures while playing its neighboring state, backed by vocal sections of fans eager to be part of what they hope will be Krzyzewski’s six-game run to title No. 6. Next up: Michigan State or Davidson in Sunday’s second round.
Damari Milstead scored 12 points to lead 15th-seeded Titans (21-11), who missed 15 of 18 shots to open the game and struggled to get into a comfortable rhythm. The Big West Conference champions finished the game shooting 38%, including 5 for 17 on the 3s that are needed for any mid-major to take down a big favorite.
Duke has long begun its postseason runs with added attention as a blueblood program with five NCAA titles. There’s extra scrutiny this year with any game potentially being the last for the winningest coach in college basketball history – down to TV cameras following Krzyzewski walking into the arena hand-in-hand with his wife, Mickie, and the team.
The Blue Devils haven’t looked quite the same of late, potentially weighed down by the enormity of playing through a legend’s final games in a 47-year career. The Blue Devils suffered a dispiriting loss to rival North Carolina in Krzyzewski’s emotional final game at Cameron Indoor Stadium and fell last weekend to Virginia Tech in the Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament championship game.
But Krzyzewski said he thought his team looked “fresher” in workouts, and the Blue Devils got off to a fast start that backed up their coach’s take.
Duke’s first basket came on a smooth passing sequence that saw Banchero find Wendell Moore Jr., who flipped it to Mark Williams nearby for the dunk. Banchero – who came in shooting 31% from behind the arc – hit a 3 from one corner, and then the other.
Moore followed with a 3 of his own off a kickout from Williams, good for a crisp 13-2 game-opening flurry. While Fullerton got within six points briefly late in the first half, Duke played confidently while protecting a comfortable margin the rest of the way.
Cal State Fullerton: The Titans won the Big West Tournament to earn their fourth bid to the NCAAs and first since 2018 under Dedrique Taylor. The ninth-year coach said he had a mature team but acknowledged this stage was “a different animal.” His team didn’t look intimidated, but it couldn’t knock down the open shots it got while struggling to handle some of Duke’s size and length.
Duke: Moore had said the team used days leading up to the tournament to work on recovering its defensive edge. There were some positive signs, namely 10 blocked shots – five by the 7-foot-1 Williams.