"This is not like having Ryan and [Mason] and Seth, where they already knew who they were," head coach Mike Krzyzewski said following Duke's win against Florida Atlantic Nov. 15. "And so there's a lot of growing that needs to take place."
The Blue Devils have repeatedly showed their youth in big games, with foul trouble, and shooting slumps plaguing the inexperienced yet talented team.
But Saturday night in its regular season finale against its arch rival, Duke (24-7, 13-5 in the ACC) showed it has grown up during the course of the turbulent season. The usual pitfalls that have resulted in losses didn't trip up the Blue Devils against No. 14 North Carolina (23-8, 13-5).
"We’re young, and so when we get tired, or if we’re not shooting well, sometimes we go inward instead of talking more," Krzyzewski said. "It’s just something that veteran players and veteran teams don’t do."
On Senior Night, Duke didn't make those young mistakes. When North Carolina rallied to cut the Blue Devil lead to single digits with 2:50 left to play, Duke didn't fall into old habits.
"We were in that position in the last game against Wake Forest when we let down when we had a lead," redshirt sophomore Rodney Hood said. "We were able to execute on offense and get stops, get key rebounds—Jabari [Parker] came up with at least three or four key rebounds that we needed and we hit our free throws, which was big."
Sparks were provided by a number of players in the second half. Graduate student Andre Dawkins hit a big 3-pointer in the second half. Junior Quinn Cook scored 11 points to go with his six assists, the most he's doled out since Jan. 27 against Pittsburgh. Sophomore Amile Jefferson was a force on the offensive glass, corralling six of his eight rebounds on the offensive end and adding eight points of his own.
But the big catalysts Saturday night were the Blue Devils' two youthful stars—Hood and Parker, both of whom may have played their final home games in Duke uniforms should they make the jump to the NBA as expected.
Hood found himself in early foul trouble, which has become a disturbing trend for the redshirt sophomore, picking up his second personal with 3:30 remaining in the first half. However, unlike in previous games, Hood didn't disappear when he got into foul woes. He also didn't shy away from taking good shots after struggling to connect early in the second half.
"I think Rodney didn’t hold back tonight," Krzyzewski said. "Sometimes when he misses, he lets that get to him. He thinks that’s a mistake, and it’s not. And tonight, he didn’t play like that."
Hood finished the night with 24 points on 8-of-13 shooting—just his second 20-point game since Jan. 11 against Clemson.
Parker, much like Hood, was "sensational", to use Krzyzewski's adjective. The freshman phenom poured in a career-high 30 points, overcoming two first-half fouls just as Hood did. Also like Hood, Parker showed his growth through his dominant play in the second period, eschewing his freshman label.
“No more freshman," Parker said after recording his sixth-straight double-double. "I don’t like getting put into that category anymore because my team needs me more than just an 18-year-old. They need somebody with experience throughout the whole game.... It’s time to grow up.”
Part of the growth of both Parker and Hood is the way they have played with each other. Often times this season one player has deferred to the other once someone got hot instead of keeping the pressure on the opposition by utilizing two of the best scorers in the ACC. The duo each eclipsed the 20-point plateau for just the fifth time this season, and the first time since a Nov. 24 heart-stopper against Vermont.
"Me and Jabari have to be there no matter what," Hood said. "That’s what we learned this whole regular season, and that’s what we have to take into postseason. We have to be there every single day for our teammates."
With maturity finally starting to set in for Duke, the ACC tournament provides the opportunity for the team to prove that it has finally turned the corner and is ready to compete with the veteran-laden teams it will meet in the NCAA tournament later this month.
"The whole season is a process, and with this team its more of a process —not a bad process, we had more of a development," Krzyzewski said. "They listen and they work hard."