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Early intensity unmatched by smaller Virginia Tech

Judging from the first-half box score, one might think the Blue Devils were gridlocked in a typical ACC battle Sunday night. Duke committed 11 personal fouls, missed 16 free throws and had more turnovers than assists. But despite those miscues the Blue Devils opened a 25-point halftime lead because they were more intense from the outset.

“We played flat on Wednesday night [against Maryland], and we wanted to play with some emotion tonight,” J.J. Redick said. “We just wanted to play better, not X’s and O’s-wise, just our effort and our attitude.”

Whatever Duke did in practice to up its intensity level worked Sunday. Last Wednesday, the Blue Devils were constantly outscrapped by a Maryland team that was more aggressive than Duke. But two minutes into Sunday’s contest, Shelden Williams sent Virginia Tech forward Deron Washington sprawling to the floor after blocking a dunk attempt. The foul and ensuing staredown sent a message to the Hokies—Williams was not going to be stopped inside the paint, and the Blue Devils were not going to be outworked.

From that point, Duke drove at will, drawing fouls or grabbing offensive rebounds on nearly every possession. Williams flourished inside, scoring on numerous putbacks off missed layups and free throws. With 13:29 remaining in the first half, Williams had outscored the entire Virginia Tech team 14-12.

Williams’ tremendous play loosened the Hokies’ perimeter defense, which had held the Blue Devils to just 27 percent shooting from beyond the arc before halftime. Virginia Tech was forced to double-team Williams every time he touched the ball in the second half. Consequently, the Hokies could not stop Redick and Daniel Ewing—who buried all hopes of a Virginia Tech comeback with a combined 25 in the last 20 minutes.

Unable to respond to Duke’s aggressive play, Virginia Tech resorted to fouling Duke players on virtually every possession. The Hokies committed 22 fouls in the first half, forcing three Hokie starters, forward Carlos Dixon, guard Jamon Gordon and center Coleman Collins to the bench early. The Hokies committed 34 fouls, just seven short of the ACC record.

Visibly frustrated by the escalating foul totals, the Cameron crowd and Duke’s aggressive man-to-man defense, the Hokies could barely manage their tempers, much less their offensive game plan. With 9:09 left in the first half, Dixon shoved Sean Dockery to the ground, resulting in a flagrant foul that sent him to the bench. Dixon, the Hokies’ leading scorer, watched helplessly for most of the game as Virginia Tech committed 16 turnovers.

“Virginia Tech’s done a heck of a job, winning four straight conference games. In all of those games, the pace of the game was really more half-court and slow,” head coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “We just wanted to speed the game up, and we used our bench early to try to put them on a different highway. We thought that would cause some fouls, and it did.”

The high-energy pace benefited Dockery. The sparkplug point guard ended his recent struggles by hounding the Hokie backcourt all night for three steals to go along with a 14-point, three-assist effort.

But most importantly, Duke’s intensity gave it a much-needed win heading into the most brutal section of its ACC schedule. The Blue Devils travel to Wake Forest Wednesday to begin a seven-game stretch that will likely make or break their ACC title run.

“There was no other alternative for us tonight than to play like this, coming off a loss at home against Maryland,” Ewing said. “That’s just the way we needed to play. That’s the way we need to come out each game and really get after them.”

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