Mike Krzyzewski gulped back tears as he gazed down the dais at the five players who had refused to let his farewell dance end, who had orchestrated a frantic comeback to progress to the Sweet 16 with an 85-76 triumph against Michigan State. 

He’d known the finish line was close for over a year. He selected this road, a farewell tour on which he could revisit some of his most memorable events and, maybe, compose one final chapter worthy of his illustrious 42-year career. The finality of Krzyzewski’s tenure has hovered over everything Duke has done this season, with each game serving as another “last something” for Krzyzewski, according to junior Wendell Moore Jr., but with the knowledge that more “lasts” awaited.

Sunday, on the other hand, was different. With 5:10 left in the game, Marcus Bingham Jr. hit a pair of free throws to give Michigan State a five-point advantage. It had finally arrived.

Williams was taken aback. Trevor Keels shook his head and hung his head. Moore clasped his hands, as if attempting to jolt his squad awake from a terrifying nightmare.

Duke has struggled to hold onto leads throughout the season. The Blue Devils gave away a nine-point lead to Michigan State on Sunday.

The Duke players have carried the pressure of writing a suitable finish to their coach’s great career all season, and it has seemed too heavy at times — in the regular-season finale against North Carolina or the ACC tournament versus Virginia Tech. That weight now threatened to crush them completely.

The Blue Devils have spent the whole season trying to carve out their own niche amid the overpowering storyline of Krzyzewski’s last dance. Despite the fact that the NCAA tournament was meant to represent a fresh start, the basketball gods cooperated to offer yet another captivating moment centred on their coach. When the NCAA put Duke and Michigan State in the same area, Krzyzewski vs. Tom Izzo was without a doubt the NCAA’s dream game. Of all, it was only fair that these two friends, who had met 16 times throughout their careers, should have one final confrontation. Izzo had the upper hand now.

In fact, the entire season had built up to this point, and it would have almost seemed right if it had ended then.

Banchero will be Krzyzewski’s final genuinely exceptional talent, and he looked the part late in the game, driving to the hoop and laying it in to end the Spartans’ 11-2 run.

Keels had struggled, but with 3:24 remaining, he hit a 3-pointer to tie the game. For the first time in what seemed like an eternity, a legion of Duke supporters could exhale.

Williams, who had been a force in the paint early on, didn’t take a shot in the last 14 minutes, but he swallowed up Michigan State’s attack on defence, playing “like a hockey goaltender,” according to Krzyzewski.

Jeremy Roach was the unknown member of Duke’s lottery choices, but in the waning minutes, he drove to the hoop again and again, attacking the rim with such zeal that even Krzyzewski was taken aback. Those drives, according to Krzyzewski, were among the finest he’d seen in his 42 years on the bench. Then came Roach’s dagger: a 3-pointer that Krzyzewski thinks was made not via precision but through pure willpower.

After the game, Krzyzewski’s eyes welled up with tears. This season has been about him, a celebration of nearly 50 years of college basketball, but when the end came, it was those guys who reached out and pulled him back from the edge.

Izzo stated, “I think they exposed their true colours.” “They were defeated by North Carolina at home. They were defeated by Virginia Tech. Exactly the same games. We returned and climbed up. They may as well have drifted off into the sunset. And I felt they reached down, Mike Krzyzewski-style, and did a tremendous job of catching us off guard.”

Moore was asked afterward if he was considering a last-ditch effort for Krzyzewski in those agonising seconds when Bingham stood at the free throw line to extend Michigan State’s advantage. He said no. He had never considered the possibility of losing. He was considering taking a road trip.

Moore, Banchero, Roach, Keels, and Williams packed their belongings into a car and travelled to Atlanta twice in July for the annual Peach Jam basketball games, a chance to see their former grassroots teams compete while sitting in the seats.

“We’ve basically nicknamed ourselves ‘The Road Crew’ since then,” Moore remarked. “At some point [this season], we knew it was going to come down to us.”

The Road Crew gathered up with five minutes left in Krzyzewski’s career.

Duke has advanced to the Sweet 16 round. Krzyzewski made it through yet another trial by fire against a deserving opponent. Duke’s players created their own mythology in a contest billed as a battle of famous coaches.

Krzyzewski felt his squad looked youthful when Michigan State seized the lead in the second half. It’s a mantra he’s said several times this season, and he wondered whether the cost for cramming a roster with potential lottery choices who hadn’t yet gotten their bearings had finally arrived.

“For a spell there, we were young,” he explained, “and I worried whether we were going to stay youthful.”

Instead, this bunch matured, and the Blue Devils made their 75-year-old coach feel young again by winning a game that belongs in Krzyzewski’s hall of fame.

The end is near. It’ll be waiting for you next weekend in San Francisco or at the Final Four in New Orleans.

When the music stops, though, this gang of Blue Devils has proven they are worthy of the dance.