These are the types of plays that have come to define Duke basketball—all of them predicated on toughness. But Saturday afternoon at Littlejohn Coliseum, that one intangible was noticeably absent.
No. 16 Duke fell 72-59 to Clemson Saturday, the second consecutive road defeat for the Blue Devils to open ACC play. After leading for the first 30 minutes of the game, Duke went cold from the field and struggled to slow down a suddenly-prolific Clemson offense. The Tigers finished the game on an 18-5 run, holding Duke without a field goal over the final 6:23, an ending eerily similar to Duke's 79-77 loss to Notre Dame last weekend.
"We weren't tough enough," Duke captain Rodney Hood said. "Rebounds, loose balls, everything. They outplayed us."
In the second half, Clemson scored 41 points and held Duke to just 22. The Tigers are among the nation's leaders in most defensive categories, and showed why Saturday with the game on the line, forcing the Blue Devils to take contested, off-balance shots, often late in the shot clock.
"They played great defense," point guard Quinn Cook said. "They made us make weak moves and weak shots. They did a good job. I thought we were tough in the first half, and after Rodney hit the three in the beginning [of the second half] we just didn't play Duke basketball, and we deserved [the loss]."
In front of a sellout crowd, the Tigers played perhaps their best game of the season against their stiffest competition. But the added motivation of playing Duke is nothing head coach Mike Krzyzewski hasn't seen before.
"Guys play hard. Duke doesn't own the patent to play hard," Krzyzewski said. "Everybody's allowed to play hard and this team played very hard against us. We have to understand that whenever we play, we get that team's best shot. They didn't have pom-poms here on Thursday night [when Clemson hosted Florida State]. It wasn't a packed house."
Toughness is a mindset problem the Blue Devils should be able to rectify by the time Virginia visits Cameron Indoor Stadium Monday night. But size is a different story.
The Blue Devils were outrebounded 48-30 by the Tigers, one of the worst rebounding margins Duke has posted all season. Clemson center Landry Nnoko feasted on the undersized defenders trying to block him out, pulling down 13 rebounds to go with his 10 points. Six of those rebounds came on the offensive end, including two that turned into 3-point play opportunities on put-backs.
"In the first half I thought we did a great job of countering [Clemson's tenacity], but their physicality, their athleticism and their determination wore on us," Krzyzewski said. "You have a four- or five-point lead and if you get the defensive rebound, you've got a chance to go seven, eight. And instead they get a 3-point play off of an offensive rebound and it's a two-point game. That's how games change. They killed us on the boards."
Playing out of position by guarding the center Nnoko, Jabari Parker struggled to move the big man out of the way, giving Nnoko and forward Jaron Blossomgame—who had 14 points and 14 rebounds, including two game-changing 3-pointers—multiple opportunities for lay-ups. Cook noted that the Blue Devil guards needed to do a better job helping the Duke bigs rebound collectively. Cook, Thornton, and Rasheed Sulaimon combined for just four rebounds.
Still, Hood made no excuses for his team's inability to rebound against the bigger, stronger Tigers.
"We got to play them. At the end of the day, we can go say 'We don't have size, we don't have a rim protector, we don't have this.' We've got to get it done," Hood said. "We've got Virginia, another tough team, a mature team, and if we don't get it right.... I don't want to think about it."