"We could have easily got down because we weren’t hitting shots," Duke point guard Quinn Cook said. "I know myself, I couldn’t buy one tonight from the outside. Andre couldn’t hit one. But we moved on."
And move on they did. The Blue Devils (9-2) started hitting their shots and managed to stymie the impressive UCLA offensive attack en route to a 80-63 win in New York at the World's Most Famous Arena.
After opening up an early lead, Duke relaxed defensively, allowing the Bruins (9-2) to storm back and take the lead before the half came to a close. After trading buckets at the end of the period, the teams went into the locker room knotted at 37.
“They’re good," Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski said. "When you’re playing good people they have a good chance of shooting well against you. When you’re playing bad people they will shoot less usually. These guys are good."
Krzyzewski was referring to the 3-point clinic UCLA put on in the first half, as the team shot 60 percent on 6-of-10 shooting. Forward David Wear and guard Bryce Alford led the charge for the Bruins, each knocking down both of their 3-point attempts. Wear would end the night with four triples, matching the number he had hit on the season prior to playing Duke.
But after a halftime emphasis on defense, the Blue Devils clamped down. Wear's two second-half threes were the only shots UCLA would hit from beyond the arc, as his teammates shot a combined 0-for-10 from trey-land in the second period. That wasn't all though. After shooting 45.2 percent from the field in the first half, the Bruins shot just 34.5 percent in the second half.
"The main thing was to get back on transition," forward Jabari Parker said. "We saw that they were a very fast-break team. They want to get points after the shot was made. I think it was a great collective team effort defensively. Our offense was going to take care of itself as long as we were patient.”
Harassing UCLA in transition paid dividends for Duke, and especially Cook. In addition to piloting the offense and scoring 14 points, Cook came away with a career-high eight steals. For comparison's sake, he had just eight swipes all year coming into this game. At one point in the second half, Cook recorded two steals in a 15-second span while stopping the Bruins' break, igniting what would become a 16-4 Blue Devil run.
In addition to an extra emphasis on defense in the second half, there was a personnel change that proved beneficial for Duke as well. Instead of seniors Josh Hairston and Tyler Thornton seeing the court in crunch time, it was sophomores Amile Jefferson and Rasheed Sulaimon.
Jefferson, coming off of an impressive showing against Gardner-Webb in which he grabbed 10 rebounds in 12 minutes, found his offensive touch Thursday night. The forward finished the contest with 11 points on 5-of-6 shooting—his highest offensive output since the Nov. 12 game against Kansas. He added seven rebounds and two blocks to give himself a well-balanced game. But Jefferson wasn't the story off the bench—it was Sulaimon.
"He’s our best driver," Cook said of Sulaimon. "When he gets in the lane he creates and he keeps the defense honest so they can’t just settle on Jabari and Rodney.... He brings a lot to our team.”
Sulaimon played 18 minutes against UCLA, a far cry from the DNP-CD he received two weeks ago against No. 22 Michigan at Cameron Indoor Stadium. While he wasn't the Sulaimon Duke fans saw against Davidson to open the season, he was effective, scoring eight points, grabbing five boards, and doling out four assists.
Jefferson and Sulaimon provided a shot in the arm, and defensively Duke wrapped up the Bruins' top guns, including guard Jordan Adams, who averages 21.2 points per game but was held to just 10 Thursday. Ultimately, it was the evolution of this Blue Devil roster after the loss to Arizona on this same floor that helped the team to fight in the second half against UCLA and turn a tie game into a 17-point victory in 20 minutes.
"We didn’t let [our poor shooting start] affect our defense, and I think the team a month ago, when we played Arizona and Kansas, I think with us missing shots it affected our defense, so we’re growing as a team,” Cook said.