It was almost unimaginable that it could really end here, in a smallish Greenville arena just 240 miles from Durham and even closer to one final trip to the Sweet 16. Could the Mike Krzyzewski era really end here, in the Round of 32?

But with Duke down 5 points to Michigan State and just 5 minutes and change to go, the unthinkable started to feel real. This wasn’t Tom Izzo’s best Michigan State team, or even one of his better ones. But for most of 40 minutes on Sunday evening, the Spartans did what Izzo teams do: pound you physically, test you in transition, and find a way in March. There’s a reason these two coaching legends have squared off in so many memorable games, and it was naive to expect anything but another classic on Sunday. It’s just that Duke wasn’t supposed to come up short. The No. 2 seed Blue Devils were playing closer to home, more talented, more accomplished and playing to give the greatest coach in a generation a storybook ending.

The Spartans, of course, didn’t care about the script.

Gabe Brown, one of the game’s only seniors, was spectacular for the Spartans, connecting on 7-of-11 field goals and scoring 18 points, including a thunderous transition dunk to key a 13-2 Spartans run late that gave Michigan State the 5-point lead mentioned above.

Another senior, Marcus Bingham Jr., posted just his second double-double (16 points, 10 boards) in 2022. The other one? Naturally it came in the month of March, because that’s what Izzo’s teams do: They find another gear in March.

The Spartans also couldn’t miss from deep, living up to their billing as one of the sweetest shooting perimeter teams in the field (16th nationally in 3 point percentage entering the game). Michigan State made 11-of-22 from 3 on Sunday, and they were 11-18 at one point before missing on their final 4 attempts.

Down 5, the Blue Devils didn’t budge, even if the building, overwhelmingly filled with blue and white clad Duke fans of all ages, needed paper bags to avoid panic attacks. Paolo Banchero made a layup to cut the lead to 3, his first basket in over 10 minutes. Then, after a stop, Jeremy Roach, who was magnificent with 15 points and 3 assists, made a dancing layup through traffic to cut Michigan State’s lead to 1. Roach wasn’t done. After a Banchero drive and bank shot gave Duke a 1-point lead, it was Roach who delivered the dagger, burying an NBA triple as help collapsed on Duke captain Wendell Moore Jr.

It was a shot reminiscent of Bobby Hurley’s monster 3 against UNLV in 1991, and you don’t have to be a Gen X-er or older millennial to remember how that tournament ended for Duke. You just need Google and a good data plan. Roach was so good that he even tried to chest bump his legendary head coach after the final buzzer sounded, leading Krzyzewski to deadpan “I don’t have a chest to bump” to the media following the game.

No matter. There were plenty of other chest bumps to go around.

By the end, Duke had outscored Michigan State 20-6 over the game’s final 5 minutes, winning with timely offense from a variety of players — not just their stars — and a defense that found itself when the moment was biggest. As he has been for over a month, Mark Williams was marvelous, swatting 5 shots, including 2 down the stretch. The good news is it wasn’t just Williams  coming up big on defense for Duke. Wendell Moore Jr. collected a critical steal after a Michigan State timeout with a minute to go, and Trevor Keels ability to harass Spartans point guard AJ Hoggard just enough kept the Spartans from reclaiming the offensive rhythm they had throughout the first 15 minutes of the second half.

It’s been said before, but bears repeating that Krzyzewski’s best basketball teams defend first and are balanced offensively second. It’s the team defense that’s slipped more than anything over the past few seasons, and that makes 5 lockdown minutes like Duke played late Sunday evening all the more encouraging as the Blue Devils head to San Francisco for what will be Krzyzewski’s record 26th Sweet 16 later this week.

The scoring balance has been there too, as Duke has received double figure outputs offensively from 9 of the 10 starters over the NCAA Tournament’s first 2 games (only AJ Griffin against Michigan State failed to get into double figures among Duke’s starters over 2 games).

These Blue Devils can score, and they can do it from anywhere on the floor, which helps ease the sting of segments like they had Sunday, when future top-5 NBA Draft pick Banchero seemed to disappear for 10 minutes in the second half. Will the Blue Devils need more from their star in the Sweet 16 and beyond? Perhaps. But with 19 points, 7 rebounds and 4 assists, it isn’t like Banchero was “bad.” He just didn’t have to do everything, which says more about Duke’s balance than it does about Banchero not being capable of carrying this Duke team to the Final Four.

Duke will need to execute for 40 minutes to win later this week against the Texas Tech-Notre Dame winner, which they didn’t do in either of their 2 victories in Greenville. Notre Dame, of course, is a familiar conference foe. Texas Tech has the nation’s best defense, per KenPom, and they contest every catch and shoot and they use a variety of concepts to do a terrific job denying the ball from a team’s preferred ball handlers and offensive initiators. It won’t be easy. Winning in March never is.

But after 1,200 wins and 26 Sweet 16s, Mike Krzyzewski won’t take one final opportunity for granted. And if the final 5 minutes of Sunday evening’s battle with the Spartans is any indication, this final incarnation of Krzyzewski’s Blue Devils aren’t taking their chance to dance for granted either.