Everything was going right for the Blue Devils through 12 minutes against Boston College Saturday afternoon.
Duke had turned an early five-point deficit into a 15-point advantage thanks to more of the crisp ball movement that led to its best offensive performance of the season Wednesday at Georgia Tech, and graduate student Amile Jefferson was at the center of the action with 11 early points inside.
But after missing a shot down low at the 7:34 mark of the first half, Jefferson landed awkwardly and was forced to leave the game with an apparent injury, marring another strong first-half performance by the Blue Devils.
After falling behind 11-6, No. 8 Duke used a 27-5 run to take control on its way to a 93-82 victory against Boston College at Cameron Indoor Stadium. The Blue Devils looked like they would coast after building a 25-point first-half lead, but missed 10 shots in a row to fuel an 11-0 Eagle run that cut the deficit to eight with 4:51 remaining in the game.
Duke responded to Boston College’s spurt with four quick points from freshmen Harry Giles and Jayson Tatum, then Tatum later knocked down a 3-pointer and four late free throws to seal the win. Tatum led six players in double figures with 22 points, and junior Grayson Allen posted a career-high in assists in the first half itself on his way to an 12-point, 11-assist performance.
“We were in a great game situation towards the end and there were a lot of learning experiences in this game for our team,” interim head coach Jeff Capel said. “We relaxed a little and we let up and that’s something that we have to learn.”
Against a turnover-prone Eagle side that committed 17 first-half giveaways, Duke had few problems early on in its first game without head coach Mike Krzyzewski following his lower-back surgery.
But fans were left wondering about Jefferson's status for much of the contest after the Philadelphia native left the bench and stayed in the locker room for much of the second half.
"He hurt his foot. We don’t know the extent of it yet. We’ll hopefully find out a little bit later," Capel said, adding that Jefferson will undergo tests in the coming days. "Amile is as important as anyone we have on our team. When he went down, a lot of stuff changed for us…. It was a big loss.”
Jefferson missed most of the 2015-16 campaign after fracturing his right foot in December 2015, and without their double-double machine on the court, the Blue Devils (14-2, 2-1 in the ACC) struggled to sustain their defensive intensity.
Boston College (8-8, 1-2) only committed four turnovers after halftime, and freshman Ky Bowman came to life to spark the road team's late rally. Bowman scored nine quick points in the first half before going cold, but finished with 19 as the Eagles mounted their run by taking the ball to the basket relentlessly.
“We were just young there. We thought that the game was over and that we can do whatever we want and not play defense—and then they made a run,” Jones said. “We knew they could be very explosive on offense and they got hot.
Sophomore guard Jerome Robinson also caught fire late on his way to a 21-point effort to aid the comeback effort.
Tatum and freshman Marques Bolden both finished with four fouls trying to protect the rim, and Giles fouled out at the 3:41 mark with 12 points and five rebounds in a season-high 24 minutes.
But after missing the start of the season with their own injuries, Giles and Tatum made enough plays late to keep Boston College at arm’s length.
“We’d love to have the defense first, but sometimes when the defense is not going, you have to have the offense,” Giles said. “We just wanted to get it going on offense, and we picked it up toward the end of the second half.”
Duke’s leading scorer, sophomore Luke Kennard, was also impacted by foul trouble early in the second half and scored just one point after halftime.
Saturday was the first time this year Kennard did not score in double figures, as the Franklin, Ohio, native finished with nine points on 2-of-6 shooting.
Although they created gaping driving lanes and open looks from the perimeter against the Eagles early on, the Blue Devils struggled to find the range late in the contest and had to rely on a bevy of free throws to close out the victory.
“Luke’s been great for us all year and he’s going to be great—it just didn’t flow for him tonight,” Capel said. “He was in foul trouble for a good part of the game. That was very tough on him, sitting for long periods.”
With Jefferson’s status now in doubt, Duke will now look to stay hot on the road in a pair of top-15 tilts at Florida State and Louisville next week. Almost every rotation player has had to deal with injuries this year for the Blue Devils, and now they have another one to cope with before arguably their toughest two-game stretch this year.
“I feel like this team can’t catch a break,” Jones said. “You don’t want to see anybody go down, but it’s kind of indicative of the year we’ve been having.”