Jeremy Roach found his hunger just in time to take Duke to the Final Four

Jeremy Roach found his hunger just in time to take Duke to the Final Four thumbnail

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    Myron MedcalfESPN Staff Writer

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    • Covers college basketball
    • Joined ESPN.com in 2011
    • Graduate of Minnesota State University, Mankato

After helping Duke rally from a four-point deficit at halftime, Jeremy Roach burst toward the rim in the final minutes of the Sweet 16 game against Texas Tech, only to be grabbed in midair by the Red Raiders’ Bryson Williams. Roach slapped Williams on the arm and stood firm as his teammates surrounded him. Wendell Moore Jr. clapped his hands when the foul was called on Williams and yelled, “Yeah!” As the officials moved in between the teams, Wendell Moore Jr. clapped his hands when Williams was fouled and yelled, “Yeah!”

The moment, led by Roach, was a message: this Blue Devils squad will not be pushed around.

“It definitely was a big thing,” the sophomore point guard said after Duke won 78-73 on March 24 to advance to the Elite Eight. “We were the underdogs going into [the Texas Tech game].. I didn’t see anyone predicting us winning this game. Everyone said that we were too young and that they would out-tough our team. We just wanted to prove that we belong here. “

Roach’s crucial second-half rally in the Sweet 16 win — 13 of his 15 points, eight of which came in the final 10: 07 — punctuated a win over college basketball’s top defense and solidified Duke’s title intentions. It also proved he could be a clutch performer and an integral part of a lineup that includes projected 2022 lottery picks Paolo Banchero, AJ Griffin, Trevor Keels, Moore Jr. and Mark Williams. Coach Mike Krzyzewski chose Roach to be his starting line-up at the crucial moment of his last season.

Duke now has a chance to send Coach K into retirement with his sixth national championship. A Final Four matchup in New Orleans on Saturday against North Carolina — the first meeting between the two longtime rivals in NCAA tournament history, coming nearly a month after the Tar Heels spoiled Coach K’s final home game of the regular season with a win — will also offer a chance for redemption. Roach knows how that feels.

“I’ve had ups and downs the whole time I’ve been at Duke,” he said. “But being consistent and confident is the most important thing. It is important to stay committed to the work. Don’t get too excited about your good days and don’t let your bad days get you down. “

Roach’s star turn in the NCAA tournament is a far cry from the turbulence of the past two months, when he lost his starting role in early February. He was bumped to reserve for the second time in this season.

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Paolo Banchero hits the go-ahead bucket, follows up with a block at the other end and then Jeremy Roach helps seal it for Duke with a 3-pointer.

A Class of 2020 recruit, he had five stars next to his name in high school just like his blue-chip peers. In the last month of the regular season, however, Krzyzewski benched him after a cold stretch (6-for-29 from 3 in eight games), and the emergence of Griffin and Keels. The move came a month after he was briefly benched for the first time in January, after finishing 3-for-8 in Duke’s 2-point loss at home to Miami.

“It gave us great size,” Duke assistant Jon Scheyer said then about the team’s new starting lineup, which replaced Roach with Griffin and won 76-64 against Wake Forest in the very next game. “The team we put out to start the game is big. “

The switch left the 6-foot-2 Roach unsure of his role, and it showed on the court. When Glenn Farello — who had coached Roach at St. Paul VI in Chantilly, Virginia — traveled to watch Duke face Florida State on Feb. 19, he didn’t recognize his former player, who scored zero points in 17 minutes off the bench.

Where was the tenacious high school junior who had overcome an ACL injury to become a five-star recruit? Where was the young man who won two gold medals with USA Basketball youth teams? Where was the relentless player who had once led his high school team to a 130-128 victory in a seven-overtime affair after it was down by 15 points with five minutes to play in regulation?

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Paolo Banchero and Jeremy Roach lead Duke in a 7-0 run to seal their victory and advance to the Elite Eight.

“I told him, ‘I want my Jeremy back,'” Farello said. “My Jeremy is a fierce competitor, he has a chip in his shoulder, and he’s always trying for the best. I thought he needed one those pep talks and a reminder about what he’s gone through. “

That conversation with Farello — “They need you,” he told him — helped Roach refocus. His parents were also helpful. He also shares a special bond and connection with his older sister Chloe and brother Jordan. They stay in touch via text messages and daily conversations.

“Those two keep me grounded,” he said. “We group text, and we FaceTime. We talk on the phone almost every day for a couple hours. They are my best friends. They are the reason I am here. They gave me the confidence to keep going with the work and to be consistent. They also told me to not worry about what others are saying and to just be yourself and believe. ‘”

Mark Williams, Roach’s roommate, has seen his friend navigate the changes all season. They would chat while playing “Fortnite” together and listening to Gunna, a hip-hop star, in their apartment.

“Down the stretch, he’s made a lot of huge plays, whether it’s finishes, stops or making the right pass,” Williams said about his “cool” teammate, who has stepped into a leadership role during Duke’s tournament run.

“[Roach] has always been able to step up in big moments, and so we trust him, 100%,” Banchero said, after Duke’s Sweet 16 victory. “We have trusted him throughout the year. “

Roach’s late-season impact is tangible. He is averaging 12.7 PPG, 3.7 APG and 1.2 SPG in the NCAA tournament for a team that is ranked first in adjusted offensive efficiency on KenPom. With Roach on the floor during the tournament, Duke has averaged 114 points per 100 possessions, per hooplens.com. The Blue Devils have made 61% of their shots inside the arc and 40% of their 3-point attempts with him in the game, too.

“The resolve of Jeremy Roach was incredible,” Krzyzewski said after the Sweet 16 game. “His drives against this defense were so strong, and so determined. “

For Duke, Roach was the catalyst in San Francisco. A fist bump from Steph Curry prior to the Texas Tech win boosted his spirits. His teammates seemed to follow him everywhere he went, both on and off the court.

After the Blue Devils’ Elite Eight win against Arkansas, Roach held up his phone as Moore, Keels and Williams walked next to him and laughed as he pointed to someone on the screen. It was obvious that the joy Roach had worked so hard to regain in this season was back.

Farello called Roach after the win and told him he finally looked like the player he’d coached in high school. Farello also recalled a conversation he had in February with Krzyzewski about his efforts in San Francisco.

” I actually said to Coach K: ‘I appreciate your still believing in him.’ Farello said. “[Krzyzewski] stated, “Coach, I promise that I will never stop believing” in him. ‘”

That faith has carried Duke all the way to New Orleans.

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