Although the crashing end to Duke’s season Friday night in Greensboro sent shockwaves through the college basketball world, the deficiencies the team showed against a resilient Lehigh squad were foreshadowed throughout the season.
Three of the Blue Devils’ first four possessions ended in Mason Plumlee dunks, and it appeared that he would have his way with Lehigh’s undersized frontcourt—featuring 6-foot-8 Gabe Knutson and two 6-foot-6 forwards. Despite having a significant size advantage against the Patriot League’s Mountain Hawks, the Blue Devils failed to exploit the difference for much of the night.
After scoring on its four possessions, in the paint each time, the Blue Devils soon turned to their perimeter attack, without much success. Duke missed its first nine 3-pointers and did not convert a shot from beyond the arc until less than two minutes remained in the first half.
Duke finished the half 1-of-10 from 3-point range, despite all of its perimeter threats trying their hand from behind the arc. Austin Rivers, Tyler Thornton, Seth Curry, Quinn Cook and Andre Dawkins all hoisted shots from downtown, even though the team had scored much more efficiently from the inside.
In stark contrast to their long-range futility, the Blue Devils went 10-for-16 from 2-point territory in the game’s first twenty minutes. The Plumlee brothers were responsible for most of this success, as they combined to register an efficient 14 first-half points on 7-of-9 shooting. The post duo was adamant in their postgame remarks that they were adequately involved in the offense. Still, Rivers had a different perspective.
“We were definitely bigger, stronger and quicker than they were out there,” the freshman guard said. “We should have been able to take more advantage. But, they outworked us. Other than that, I don’t really know how to explain it.”
Despite Duke’s sluggish start, it still maintained a two-point lead at halftime as Lehigh had offensive troubles of its own. The second half exposed another problem that has plagued the Blue Devil perimeter players for much of the year, however.
Faced with the task of keeping NBA prospect C.J. McCollum and his backcourt teammate Mackey McKnight out of the lane, the Duke guards did not have the foot speed to keep the speedy guards from slicing through its defense. Although Thornton drew the primary assignment on McCollum, the junior Mountain Hawk guard consistently left each of the Blue Devil defenders in his wake.
McCollum’s final stat line of 30 points, 6 rebounds and 6 assists does not even fully encompass his impact. He was able to consistently put the pressure on the Duke defenders, and his attacking nature put nearly the entire Blue Devil rotation into foul trouble. For the game, Lehigh shot 37 free throws, compared to just 23 attempts for Duke.
Both Curry and Thornton ended up fouling out while Rivers and Mason Plumlee finished the game with four fouls apiece. Saddled with these fouls, Duke’s aggressiveness was limited, and the Mountain Hawks were able to use dribble penetration to get where they wanted to on the court.
“They do a great job of hedging [ball screens], but I felt like I could beat the big man one-on-one,” McCollum said. “I was getting one of the Plumlee brothers every time. And, as a big man, once you pick up that first foul hedging, you kind of get tentative.”
With Lehigh finding its rhythm offensively in the second half, Duke needed to do the same, but its backcourt players were still unable to find their strokes. Although an improvement over the first half, the Blue Devils shot just 5-for-16 from the 3-point line in the final 20 minutes, good for 23.1 percent for the game.
Mason Plumlee continued to have his way on the inside, finishing the game a perfect for 9-for-9 from the floor on his way to 19 points and 12 rebounds. But Rivers, Thornton, Curry, Cook and Dawkins continued to use a lot of possessions, combining to shoot a dismal 11-for-41.
While Lehigh’s defensive effort was good enough to negate some of the Blue Devils’ advantage inside, Duke scored efficiently from the interior but did not continue to press the advantage.
“I think [Mason] finished 9-for-9,” Knutson said. “I don’t think that’s limiting him too much. Both of them played really well tonight, and it was a big challenge inside.”
Few predicted that the Blue Devils would be exiting the NCAA tournament after just a single appearance, but the shortcomings that showed up on the floor Friday night were predictable. The poor shooting from 3-point range and inability to keep opposing guards out of the lane proved too much to overcome.