SAN FRANCISCO – Jabari Smith Jr. or Chet Holmgren? Chet Holmgren or Jabari Smith Jr.?

Entering the 2021-22 college basketball season, Duke freshman Paolo Banchero was considered to be in the mix to be the No. 1 overall pick in the 2022 NBA Draft, along with the Auburn forward and Gonzaga big man. But, as the season wore on, Banchero fell a notch behind the other 2 freshman sensations in the eyes of many experts.

Too inconsistent, some said. Disappears for long stretches in tight games, others noted.

But, with Duke struggling against Texas Tech on Thursday night in the Sweet 16, the Blue Devils needed Banchero to look like the guy who, a few short months ago, was atop many NBA Draft boards.

The Red Raiders were absolutely bullying the Blue Devils for most of the first half. Led by Adonis Arms (a name straight out of a Marvel movie) and Bryson Williams, Texas Tech’s length and athleticism were giving Duke fits.

That’s when Paolo Banchero put on his cape. It was time to play hero for his team.

Just before halftime, Banchero threw down a thunderous dunk, drawing a foul and converting the and-1 to cut the Red Raiders’ lead to 33-29 at the intermission.

“The end of the half was critical,” coach Mike Krzyzewski said after the game. “They had a 7-point lead and we were able to score and then not let them score. All of a sudden, you’re looking at a 4-point (deficit), and we had the ball.”

After a back-and-forth start to the second half, Duke found itself in a 56-52 hole with under 9 minutes left.

Enter Banchero.

A 3-pointer to narrow the deficit to 1 with 8:25 remaining. A layup with 6:20 on the clock to put Duke up 62-59. An assist to Mark Williams for a monster dunk to give the Blue Devils a 64-61 edge:

And he was just getting started. After Kevin McCullar hit a 3 to give the Red Raiders a 68-66 lead with 3:19 remaining, Banchero didn’t panic.

He was playing like he knew what was going to happen. After all, the superhero never fails at the end of the movie, right?

With a hand in his face, he rose off the court and, without blinking, nailed this clutch 3:

69-68, Duke lead, 2:57 remaining. The Blue Devils would not relinquish that lead.

Down the stretch of Duke’s 78-73 victory, Banchero knew it was all over for the Red Raiders:

After the game, even Coach K couldn’t help but be impressed. Banchero was talking about his 22-point, 4-rebound, 4-assist, 3-steal performance when his coach slapped him on the shoulder with a big smile.

“I wouldn’t say it’s a new clutch gene at all,” Banchero said of his heroics late, part of a streak of 8-straight made shots by the Blue Devils in the game’s final minutes. “I would say all year in the biggest moments, we’ve always stepped up. And there’s no bigger moment than this. I don’t know about these guys, but I’ve never played in a basketball game like that, so…”

That’s when Krzyzewski stepped in.

“You were terrific,” he said.

Later, he continued.

“I have to say one thing,” Coach K beamed. “I’ve been around so many good players. When they just go into their own thing, where it’s stuff you can’t teach them and they just do it, that’s what he did. …

“You can watch that tape during that 60 seconds where – it’s like when great players just go. … I’m just so happy that I was there for that moment with him, because it’s his. It’s his, but it benefited all of us.”

It wasn’t Banchero’s best stat line of the year. But, to put together the performance he did, on this stage, with the pressure of 1 more loss ending Coach K’s illustrious career, was incredible. His highlight reel from Thursday night speaks for itself:

Legends are made in March. The Blue Devils face another difficult test on Saturday night against a strong Arkansas team that just knocked off Gonzaga, the No. 1 overall seed in the tournament. The game tips off at 8:49 p.m. Eastern time on TBS.

Banchero’s story is still being written, but if he can get this Duke team to the Final Four one last time for Coach K, he’ll be remembered in Durham for a long time to come.