One week after Belmont nearly upset Duke on its home floor, the Blue Devils received a scare from another well-coached mid-major program.
Displaying the same type of methodical, pass-heavy offensive sets that the Bruins used to break down Duke’s defense, Davidson picked apart the Blue Devils in the first half with easy layups and a barrage of 3-pointers.
“I thought we were on our heels defensively,” head coach Mike Krzyzewski said of his team’s first-half effort. “I just thought [Davidson] got it down faster, they cut harder…. They were a very determined team the entire game, and I thought it knocked us back. We had no talk on defense.”
Duke’s interior defense looked suspect at times in the first half. On two occasions, Davidson guards JP Kuhlman and Chris Czerapowicz encountered little resistance from the Blue Devils’ big men as they sliced through the paint for uncontested layups.
The Wildcats’ Jake Cohen also put on an impressive display during the first 20 minutes, as his baskets highlighted weaknesses Duke will need to address as it enters the most challenging stretch of its nonconference schedule.
The versatile 6-foot-10 forward, who converted all four of his shot attempts in the first half, scored both inside and out. He knocked down a wide-open 3-pointer a minute into the game, as Mason Plumlee was caught watching inside the paint and couldn’t close down the space in time. Cohen followed up that jumper with a nifty up-and-under move a minute later, using a shot fake to get Plumlee off his feet.
Cohen’s fearless play emboldened the rest of his teammates. They successfully exploited the Blue Devils’ soft perimeter defense, knocking down five 3-pointers in the first half to take a 35-34 lead at the intermission.
Krzyzewski and his coaching staff gave Duke a much-needed wake-up call at halftime. But when Kuhlman scored on another easy drive to the hoop three minutes into the second period, it seemed as if the message had fallen on deaf ears.
After Mason Plumlee answered to tie the game at 41, Ryan Kelly decided to take matters into his own hands, blocking Nik Cochran’s shot on Davidson’s next possession even though he had two fouls. The block represented a turning point in the team’s defensive intensity, and the Blue Devils proceeded to blow the game open with a 12-0 run.
“Our defense wasn’t giving us anything [in the first half],” Mason Plumlee said. “In the second half, it gave us some turnovers. We forced some bad shots. Bad shots turn into fast breaks just as turnovers do, so both those things really helped us get going in the second half.”
Plumlee was responsible for starting one of those fast breaks during the decisive run, displaying excellent court vision after he corralled a rebound on a missed 3-pointer by De’Mon Brooks. The younger Plumlee launched an outlet pass to his older brother streaking down the floor, and Miles ignited the crowd with a thunderous reverse slam.
On Davidson’s subsequent trip down the floor, Austin Rivers stole the ball from Kuhlman and went end-to-end for an easy layup, giving Duke a double-digit lead it would never relinquish.
“In the second half I thought our pressure on the ball was better, and it gave us time to talk,” Krzyzewski said. “It slowed them down just a little. We kept people in front of us. And that’s where Seth [Curry] and Quinn [Cook] did a much better job for us in the second half.”
The second-half statistics reflected the increased pressure, as the Wildcats attempted six 3-pointers in the period after taking 14 in the first half—and they made just two of those six. Moreover, the Blue Devils shut down Cohen, as the only points he scored after halftime came on a pair of free throws.
Although Kelly set the tone for the defensive turnaround, the sustained lockdown was a true team effort. Freshman Quinn Cook delivered an especially poised performance at the point guard spot, playing 10 minutes in the second half while Curry sat on the bench with three fouls.
Cook sealed the victory with 39 seconds remaining with a 3-point play. He came from behind to poke the ball away from Kuhlman and fought off contact from Czerapowicz to score a tough bucket in transition.
“Right now we have different guys stepping up at different times, and you hope that at some point, everybody’s playing great, and everybody’s stepped up to that level,” Kelly said. “That’s when you’re the best team you can be.”