Duke basketball bends but doesn't break against ACC's top scorer
But that's what Duke did Saturday in the ACC tournament semifinals, keeping ACC Player of the Year T.J. Warren in check for the majority of the second half as the Blue Devils pulled away for a 75-67 victory. N.C. State's dynamic forward finished with 21 points, but needed 22 shots to get them.
In the early going, the ACC's leading scorer appeared on pace to repeat his 41- and 42-point performances to close out the regular season. Warren buffeted the Blue Devils with a barrage of difficult baskets in the first half, scoring 11 of N.C. State's first 19 points and finishing the period with 13. The Durham native showcased his versatility against his hometown team by scoring in a variety of ways: finishing at the rim, cutting backdoor for lay-ups, spinning through traffic and pulling up with a hand in his face.
Redshirt sophomore Rodney Hood drew the assignment on Warren one day after shadowing Clemson's biggest scoring threat, K.J. McDaniels. At Hood's suggestion, the Blue Devil coaching staff made an important adjustment in its approach to containing Warren, shying away from the initial gameplan of playing to Warren's high side when he didn't have the ball. As a result, Hood was beaten on backdoor cuts twice in the first half.
The new strategy, staying even with Warren instead of overcommitting, paid great dividends in the second half.
"You can overcoach. We overcoached our preparation," Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski said. "[Hood] was doing what we asked him to do and it wasn't working. He said, 'Coach, let me play him my normal way.' That was better."
Sophomore forward Amile Jefferson shouldered some of the blame for Warren's torrid first-half points in the paint, citing breakdowns in Duke's help defense and rotations.
"In that first half we weren't talking enough, we weren't helping each other out," Jefferson said. "Our guards were doing a really great job fighting to make sure he took tough shots, but they didn't really have the help they needed in the first half. In the second half we were able to slide over more, give more help, make him see a lot of eyes when he turned into the paint. I think that really helped us out."
When Hood picked up his second foul with 6:09 left in the first half, the task was shifted to a trio of Duke guards. Tyler Thornton, Rasheed Sulaimon and Matt Jones all spent time guarding Warren, but Hood regained the primary defensive duties after intermission.
Warren scored on the opening possession of the second half, but did not make another basket until the 7:07 mark, missing his next five shots and committing two turnovers during that personal drought. The Wolfpack suffered the ill effects of its star's struggles, as Duke outscored N.C. State 23-13 in that 12:24 span.
“Every shot, we tried to contest it," Sulaimon said. "With T.J, you can’t fall asleep. He’s always looking to score, whether on cuts or offensive rebounds, so we just tried to stay alert on him and whenever he got the ball to make sure that 10 eyes were on him.”
Warren got hot again down the stretch in a last-gasp effort to bring the Wolfpack into—both in the game and in the NCAA tournament conversation. The sophomore made three of his final six shots, but also missed a pair of free throws in the final minute and fumbled a ball out of bounds with Duke ahead by double digits and looking to put the game out of reach.
Fatigue may have finally gotten to Warren, who logged 39 minutes Saturday in N.C. State's third game in as many days. Aware of that possibility, Sulaimon said the Blue Devils tried to make both Warren and sharpshooter Ralston Turner work as hard as possible for every shot.
“We knew that they had a short rotation, so that’s why we tried to get after them defensively," Sulaimon said. "We’re a good defensive team, and we just tried to wear out their legs because we knew sooner or later they would fatigue and start to wear away.”