Duke dismissed any fears of a defensive letdown Tuesday night.
Coming off a 66-60 win against then-No. 1 Syracuse Saturday to play a fifth game in 11 days, head coach Mike Krzyzewski kept the Blue Devils' intensity high by starting the squad in a full-court press against the ACC's last-place Hokies.
"We just wanted to come out and step on their throats right away and force the pace and try to speed them up and get them out of rhythm," sophomore guard Rasheed Sulaimon said.
Duke's pressure paid off early. The Blue Devils forced nine first-half turnovers and held Virginia Tech to just four points through the first ten minutes of the game. At the halftime buzzer, the Hokies had given the ball away on 28.1 percent of their possessions.
Keeping Virginia Tech off the scoreboard early proved especially helpful given Duke's shooting performance. The Blue Devils missed four of their first five 3-point attempts but scored seven of their first nine points off turnovers or second-chance attempts. For the half, Duke shot just 23.5 percent from beyond the arc and 36.1 percent overall from the field.
"Defense is always going to win the game, especially when our shots aren't falling like we were hoping like we wanted them too," said senior guard Tyler Thornton, who had three takeaways on the night.
Playing 36 minutes, Sulaimon highlighted the defensive performance. The sophomore overwhelmed Hokie freshman Devin Wilson, pressuring him into six turnovers on the night. In the last three games, Sulaimon has solidified a spot in the starting rotation, and Krzyzewski attributed his team's improvements to the guard's on-ball pressure.
"Coach has a lot of confidence in me and he constantly tells me that he thinks I can be a lot better defender," Sulaimon said. "I mean if Coach K's telling you something, it must be true, so I'm starting to have a lot more confidence in myself as well, and I'm trying to use my quickness and not necessarily steal the ball but just try to disrupt their offense.... especially when you have 9,000-plus fans, Cameron Crazies cheering for you as well, and even when you're tired, it keeps you going."
The Blue Devil defense did not stop in the backcourt however. Freshman forward Jabari Parker posted his fourth three-block game of the year and added three steals to his statline. Redshirt sophomores Marshall Plumlee—who also had two blocks against Syracuse—and Rodney Hood each added a block. And Duke's big men gave up just four offensive boards in the contest.
After going through their own five-minute stretch without a field goal in the first half, the Blue Devils had left the Hokies with a window back into the game. Two minutes into the second half, Virginia Tech pulled within seven points on a layup from forward Jarrell Eddie.
Krzyzewski immediately called a timeout to remind his team of what was at stake against a team that had played four consecutive games decided by seven points or less. He told the Blue Devils that if they did not turn around their defensive effort, they would be risking their NCAA-leading 31-game home winning streak, Parker said.
"In the last four games, Virginia Tech had a chance to win in the games that they played," Thornton said. "We didn't want to be a team that [let them stay close], especially protecting our home court. We want to stay undefeated at Cameron."
Sulaimon’s offense gave the Blue Devils some breathing room when he hit a 3-pointer right out of the timeout. Although the Hokies pulled within eight later, Duke tightened up its defense again, holding Virginia Tech without a field goal for 8:21 in the last 12 minutes of the game, allowing the Blue Devils to find their shooting touch.
"We've been having these lulls these last couple games at sporadic points in the game, but one thing that we don't want to have a lull on is defense," Sulaimon said. "We're going to keep the defensive pressure up, and when we don't hit jump shots like that, our defense can get us easy buckets in transition, and that can get us going. So no matter how we're playing offensively, if we continue to play well defensively, we'll be fine."