Third-seeded Duke earned a chance to play for its first ACC tournament title since 2011 by knocking off seventh-seeded N.C. State 75-67 Saturday afternoon at the Greensboro Coliseum. After a first half in which the teams shot a combined 57.4 percent from the field, it was a revitalized defensive effort that led the Blue Devils to victory.
"We didn't want to trade baskets. That's what we did in the first half," senior captain Tyler Thornton said. "The second half we were able to make them take tough shots, and that's how we got our stops."
After heading into the locker room with a slim 39-38 advantage, the Blue Devils (26-7) held the Wolfpack (21-13) without a field goal for 5:15 early in the second half, using a 13-2 run during that span to open up a 58-47 lead.
Thornton, who picked up three first-half fouls, played a crucial role in that spurt, knocking down a 3-pointer from the wing and making an acrobatic defensive play that led to a rim-rattling dunk by sophomore forward Amile Jefferson to give the Blue Devils a nine-point lead, its largest of the game at the time.
In his postgame press conference, Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski called Thornton's defensive effort "one of the biggest plays of the game."
"Plays like that really hurt teams," Jefferson said. "When you're fighting for a ball and the other team has the ball and he just smacks it out and we go and get a dunk... that's really tough. When you see your opponent fighting, risking, putting all that on the line. It's either you're going to fight back or you're going to snap, and Tyler made a huge play."
Freshman Jabari Parker continued his recent tear by leading the Blue Devils with 20 points on his 19th birthday. After scoring seemingly at will in the first half, ACC Player of the Year T.J. Warren managed just eight second-half points, leading the Wolfpack with 21.
After shooting 6-of-9 in the first half, the Warren was hampered by consistent double-teams from the Blue Devils in the second period. Duke's defensive communication paid off, and the Wolfpack star finished a meager 10-of-22 from the floor on the game.
"I think we played more connected on the defensive end," redshirt sophomore Rodney Hood said. "We knew T.J. was going to get his points.... We still gave him some, but I think we did a good job helping each other out, especially in transition."
Warren was not the only N.C. State player to feel the Blue Devils' added defensive intensity in the second half. After shooting 66.7 percent from the floor in the first half, the Wolfpack only managed a 35.5-percent clip in the final 20 minutes of the contest.
N.C. State was able to cut Duke's lead to eight in the final three minutes of the game, but Parker erased all doubt by grabbing an offensive rebound when Hood missed the front end of a one-and-one and flushing it back home.
As Hood was occupied with guarding Warren, Duke got an additional offensive spark from its guards. Sophomore Rasheed Sulaimon drove to the bucket aggressively en route to 16 points and junior Quinn Cook was lights out from 3-point range, knocking down 3-of-4 from beyond the arc to finish with 14 points.
"Quinn stepped in and hit some big shots and did a good job pressuring the ball," Thornton said. "That's what we needed. We just want him to do that for the rest of our games left in the tournament."
The Blue Devils will advance to tomorrow's ACC tournament championship game to take on No. 1 seed Virginia, which advanced to the final with a 51-48 win against Pittsburgh earlier Saturday afternoon.