Duke vs. Michigan State: What it’s like to beat college basketball’s most hated program, in the words of the men who did it.

Seven Players and a Coach Explain What It’s Like to Beat Duke in the NCAA Tournament

Seven Players and a Coach Explain What It’s Like to Beat Duke in the NCAA Tournament

The stadium scene.
April 3 2015 1:53 PM

I Beat Duke

What it’s like to take down college basketball’s most hated program, in the words of the men who did it.

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The only way we could compete with them was to respect them. That Duke game was special in the sense that we accomplished it together. It wasn’t anybody individually. It’s hard to explain, but when you play against Duke, you never want to be that team where they’re smacking the floor and you get run out of the gym. I guess we didn’t want that to happen.

Maurice Ager, Michigan State

J.J. Redick #4 of the Duke Blue Devils handles the ball under pressure from Maurice Ager #13 of the Michigan State Spartans.
Michigan State's Maurice Ager pressures Duke'sJ.J. Redick during the NCAA Tournament on March 25, 2005.

Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

In 2005, No. 5 seed Michigan State beat the top-seeded Blue Devils 78-68 in the Sweet 16. Ager’s transition dunk over J.J. Redick was the day’s most spectacular highlight.


I think about some of the things that led up to that game. I just remember being in my room at one point, me and [teammate] Drew Neitzel, watching the news and highlights and stuff—they were basically talking about how Duke beat us earlier that year at Cameron [Indoor Stadium]. The biggest thing they were talking about, they were saying we were scared. We were like deer in the headlights. I remember that phrase. A lot of our motivation came from those interviews prior to the game.

I feel like once you reach a certain stature when you’ve won so many games and championships, you become the bad guy. It happens to the best of them. There’s only so much before people start looking at you as the bully. The Lakers, the Cowboys, the Bulls in ’96. It’s nothing new. Those [Duke] guys are great, man. I think Coach K’s obviously a great coach. Not only a great college coach, he’s a great pro coach. He keeps winning these championships and these gold medals.

J.J. was tough. He could shoot, he’s tougher than people think he is, or was back then. We did a really good job on the scouting report. I guarded him the majority of the game. I just made sure I stayed on him. I made sure he didn’t get any open looks. I just chased him and did what I could to keep up with him.

I think the dunk just sealed the deal. I can’t even go on Twitter—once every week, somebody brings it up again, you know, talking about my dunk on J.J. Redick. It was fun, man.

After it happened, I think it took a big wind out of Duke. I just wanted to finish. I just wanted to finish. I didn’t realize it was going to happen like that. I didn’t think [Redick] was going to try to take a charge. Obviously it turned out pretty good. [Laughs] I remember pounding my chest, man, and getting back on defense.

Derrick Dial, Eastern Michigan

Derrick Dial soars to the basket against Duke in the 1996 NCAA Tournament.

Courtesy of Eastern Michigan University

In 1996, No. 8 seed Eastern Michigan beat No. 9 seed Duke 75-60 in the first round. Five-foot-5 point guard Earl Boykins, who went on to play in the NBA for a decade, scored 23 points for Eastern Michigan. His teammate Dial, a future pro himself, added 12.

What was really strange, when you got there—the game was in the RCA Dome—it was very, very quiet. There was a game going on before us. So how can it be so quiet? Then they opened up the doors, because we’re getting ready to head to the court, and it was ridiculously loud. It was almost deafening. It was a different intensity, a different everything. You’re so hyped up—you actually have to calm yourself down. And then it’s weird when you actually play the game, because the crowd turns on the favorite and starts to root for the underdog. It’s an atmosphere.

When you think about teams that have the history, Duke is one of those teams—you always appreciate what they do on the court—but you really want to beat those teams, because it’s almost like a validation that you’re a good team. You always want a chance to play against them. I remember our coach saying, “Don’t focus on the letters on the front of the chest. Don’t get caught up just ’cause it’s Duke.” If you do, you really can become overwhelmed. You just go out there and prepare like you always have. And you settle down right after that. It’s amazing how after the jitters clear, you settle down.

They had Wojo [Steve Wojciechowski missed all but three minutes of the game with a sprained ankle] and they had [Trajan Langdon]. It’s amazing that with a more noted school, when they know they’re in for a dog fight, they try to buckle down, to land that knockout punch, but when they can’t do it, actually you can send them reeling.

That whole week, [we said], “We can beat them.” People say it all the time, but they don’t mean it. But we actually felt we could win. We really pulled away from them. It wasn’t close. I didn’t think it was going to be that bad, but we always thought we could win.

I remember shooting the ball, missing it, and tip-dunking my own rebound. It was an and-one. And you see Coach K go ballistic. You say, “On TV he looks so calm.” But, wow, he’s not that calm. He went off! I mean, he was upset. And he really was laying into his team. He was trying to get them to, I guess, execute. You see him on TV and he looks calm. He was anything but calm.

Everything is on national TV. It’s what it’s all about. You remember smiling ear to ear, and we were the story of the tournament for about two hours. And then I think it was Princeton beat UCLA. And they were the story. It’s crazy how things happen in the tournament. It’s really March Madness. I know people say it all the time, but to really experience it? It is really crazy out there.

Interviews have been condensed and edited.