Although the focus was on Jabari Parker's commitment to Duke Thursday, the Blue Devils also played basketball.
In the second of its back-to-back matchups right before a holiday break, Duke was able to work past its weariness to pull off a 76-54 win against Elon.
That win did not come easily, however. Thursday night’s matchup appeared eerily similar to the Blue Devils’ bout against Cornell Wednesday, which got off to a slow start but ended with an explosive second half. Duke’s performance after halftime was less impressive Thursday, but the Blue Devils (11-0) were still able to get out to a comfortable double-digit lead coming back out of the locker room.
In addition to marking the start of the brief holiday, Thursday night’s win marks the Blue Devils’ 100th consecutive win to nonconference opponents at home.
“We were tired—you could see it in our faces,” said head coach Mike Krzyzewski, who noted that December games are challenging due to exams and tight scheduling. “I thought we really needed a break, and thank goodness our defense played so well. Overall it was a good game for our team because you’re fighting human nature and you’re fighting the other team, and we won in both cases.”
The only major spurt of energy that emerged throughout the mostly lackluster first half was sophomore point guard Quinn Cook’s buzzer-beater long shot going into the locker room. The 3-point heave from well beyond the arc gave the Blue Devils an eight-point margin—the largest lead they had seen all night.
“Whenever you can go into the half with a play like that, it obviously energizes you,” senior forward Ryan Kelly said. “We felt like we didn’t play—especially offensively—as well as we could have in the first half. “
With a 5-of-9 performance before halftime, the man of the night was senior forward Mason Plumlee, who accumulated 21 points and pulled down 15 rebounds by the end—the big man’s seventh double-double of the season.
“I still leave some points out there on the board, I think that’s obvious,” Mason said. “The numbers look good on the box, but I think they’re not as good as they could be.”
Moving forward, the squad will have to figure out how to generate more rebounds across the roster. Doing so has been challenging with red-shirt freshman Marshall Plumlee out for the first part of the season due to a foot injury. Marshall saw two minutes of playing time Wednesday, but suffered a slight ankle sprain against the Big Red that also precluded him from Thursday’s matchup.
But with help from Cook—who tallied a season-high eight rebounds, seven of which were defensive—the Blue Devils were able to make progress on their goal of beefing up their defense. Duke was able to force 17 turnovers and steal the ball 10 times, seven of which came just in the second half.
“It’s great when [Quinn] gets some [rebounds], because then we’re a lot faster in transition.,” Mason said. “And that’s something coach has been pushing us on… we need guys to get up above five boards a game.”
The Phoenix (6-5) recorded only two offensive rebounds in the second half, as compared to Duke’s formidable 13 defensive pulls from the glass.
Overall, Duke’s free throw shooting was some of the worst it has been all season. Shooting 43.8 percent the charity stripe, the Blue Devils saw their worst free-throw performance all season—with the usually can't-miss Seth Curry going 1-of-5 in the first half. With an overall field goal percentage of 43.3 percent, the Devils also saw their second-worst shooting performance thus far.
Duke was strong from behind the arc, however, shooting 57.9 percent throughout the night, nailing 11-of-19 attempts. Elon’s long shooters also proved to be a formidable opponent, with Sebastian Koch draining 4-of-5, and going 3-of-3 in the first half.
With just more than 13 minutes to go, the game quickly turned into a fast-paced back-and-forth competition for 3-pointers. Following a crucial long shot by Elon’s Ryley Beaumont to bring the game within single digits, junior guard Tyler Thornton drained down back-to-back 3-pointers, followed by two free throws from Mason and a shot behind the arc from freshman Rasheed Sulaiman to allow the Devils to break away.
“When you play a team as good as Duke…you are challenged on every possession,” said Elon head coach Matt Matheny. “They play every possession as if it is the most important possession. That’s what we’re striving for in our program. I thought we did that for most of the first half.”
NCAA rules restrict coaches from discussing recruits until future players sign National Letters of Intent, so there was little discussion of the news that Jabari Parker had verbally committed to Duke Thursday afternoon. The positive news about the No. 2 overall player in the Class of 2013 did prompt Krzyzeski to talk about the way he has run his overall program, however.
“We are one of the best programs ever, and to be able to say that over the last three decades—I’m proud of that,” he said. “It’s called sustained excellence, and that’s what we want to do. To me, that’s tougher than attaining excellence once.”