Jabari Parker scored. Amile Jefferson rebounded. Tyler Thornton forced steals.
But even with these expected sights Saturday, something was palpably different about Duke’s play in its blowout 95-60 win against N.C. State.
“I thought it’s the hardest that we’ve played,” Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “We played really hard on Monday, collectively….Our energies were combined these past two games.”
It was a true team display in Cameron Indoor Stadium—for the second straight game, Krzyzewski used hockey substitution patterns early, bringing in a fresh squad of five players just 3:11 into the first half.
All 13 Blue Devils got into the game Saturday, and 10 managed to play double-digit minutes. The frequent substitutions allowed Duke to wield a high-pressure, smothering defense that forced the Wolfpack into 15 first-half turnovers and 21 overall.
“The energy and the enthusiasm is one thing that’s changed from everybody because everybody knows they’re going to play,” said Tyler Thornton, who led the Blue Devils with four steals. “So when you come in the game, you’re playing with no brakes—[you] just let it out.”
Duke’s defense has been much maligned this season: in all four of their losses, the Blue Devils have allowed more than 70 points. Facing an N.C. State team that boasts the ACC's leading scorer in sophomore T.J. Warren, Duke was expected to have a tough test on its hands.
That wasn’t the case Saturday, as the Blue Devils’ spirited play managed to silence their critics, at least for the time being. The defense came from all corners—every member of the Wolfpack had a turnover, and seven Duke players claimed steals.
“Coming into the game, we had a lot of quotes saying that we were soft as a team and that they’d just try to attack us and try to get to the paint—and we took that personally,” Thornton said. “I think everyone did a great job of stepping up, and we fought. Everyone who came into the game brought something to the game, and that’s what you need, especially in ACC play.”
Thornton, along with Jefferson and Rodney Hood, was given the difficult task of shutting down Warren. Warren did manage an impressive 23 points, but the Blue Devils defense was able to limit the Wolfpack’s other options. Quinn Cook, notably, harassed point guard Anthony "Cat" Barber throughout the game, limiting him to just seven points and forcing four turnovers.
Although he praised Cook’s effort, Krzyzewski again emphasized the unity of the team’s effort.
“I thought Quinn played outstanding defense,” Krzyzewski said. “[But] he has to have people behind him. To single out one guy [defensively] would not be the right thing today. I thought we all played really well.”
While the on-ball pressure was present from the outset, Duke’s energy faltered in another facet of the game early on: rebounding. N.C. State grabbed the first 13 rebounds of the game, with Warren, Kyle Washington and Jordan Vandenberg asserting themselves inside.
But inevitably, the rebounding effort came around the Blue Devils.
“Today was a fight—it was hard to get a rebound today, especially early,” said Jefferson, who led Duke with eight rebounds. “But I think all our guys got settled down, and realized that we can’t just pursue the ball—we have to block out and then pursue.”
By the end of the game, the Blue Devils held a 35-32 advantage on the glass. Eleven different players secured boards for Duke, including every guard who stepped on the court.
“We had a team rebounding effort tonight,” Jefferson said. “That really helped establish us offensively.”
On that end of the floor, the story was Parker, but with a twist. The freshman—who had averaged five 3-point attempts per game in ACC contests and had attempted just 12 foul shots combined in those four games—flipped the script Saturday. He barreled to the cup early and often, shooting 10 free throws in the first half alone. Also notable: just two 3-point attempts for the talented perimeter shooter.
After Parker’s struggles early on in the ACC slate, Krzyzewski was pleased to see him adjust his tactics with success.
“Changing habits is not easy especially when you were so successful with other habits,” Krzyzewski said. “He and Jeff Capel worked really hard in the last couple days. I think motion helps him, in that he gets the ball in different spots, and then it’s up to him…. Today he really attacked.”
In terms of Parker’s per-minute production, Saturday represented his most efficient outing since Nov. 18 against UNC-Asheville. Against N.C. State, he generated 23 points in just 26 minutes of play, and he was also able to fill the rest of the stat sheet with seven rebounds and three steals.
Ironically, the strategy of playing more people may have been what allowed Duke’s leading scorer to find greater success offensively.
“Some of those guys knowing that they don’t have to play 38, 40 minutes—they don’t have to pace themselves throughout the game,” Thornton said. “They can give all they got for three minutes, they can come off, get a quick timeout, and get right back in the game.”
It’s apparent that a point of emphasis for the coaching staff is utilizing a deeper bench, especially given the quality depth that Duke boasts. The strategy especially made sense Saturday, as the Blue Devils could take advantage of a short-handed Wolfpack squad that only had eight scholarship players available.
Two games with heavy substitutions: two ACC wins. It’s not a clear slam dunk yet, but the exit polls look promising.
“We got better this week, and hopefully we can continue to do that,” Krzyzewski said. “We’re going to have to play that hard in order to have an opportunity to win in this league. But I think this afternoon was very good.”