CLEMSON, S.C. - A month after Sean Dockery's last second shot beat Virginia Tech, Duke once again escaped a close game against a tough ACC opponent to maintain its perfect record.
In the Blue Devils' 87-77 victory over Clemson, J.J. Redick poured in 34 points and Shelden Williams chipped in 17 and 11 rebounds. But Saturday afternoon's game against the Tigers was less about what Duke did than it was about what Clemson could not do.
After the game, head coach Mike Krzyzewski acknowledged just how close the Tigers were to ending Duke's undefeated run Saturday afternoon.
"We beat a team that gave a winning effort," he said. "You saw two teams that gave winning efforts today."
Fortunately for Duke, Clemson's best shot came up short because it was conspicuously lacking in one aspect of the game-free throw shooting. The Tigers struggled all afternoon from the charity stripe, finishing a miserable 6-for-21 from the line, even after Shawan Robinson hit two straight in the final minute to improve the statistics a tiny bit.
"Our guys weren't happy about it," Clemson head coach Oliver Purnell said. "I'm not happy about it."
Purnell was aggravated for good reason. Besides missing open 15-footers from the foul line, his team matched, if not outplayed, the No. 1 Blue Devils, who were coming off blowout wins over Wake Forest and Maryland. His Tigers outrebounded the Blue Devils, shot and made more field goals and limited Duke to just four made three-pointers.
Clemson's head coach talked after the game about how his strategy of driving to the hoop and making Williams choose who to defend was "accepted" as the best way to attack Duke. In that sense, just how close the Tigers came to beating the Blue Devils should give Krzyzewski and his coaching staff some pause.
But Clemson could not close the deal because even Purnell's best players could not buy a shot from the foul line. Vernon Hamilton nearly matched Redick's output with 31 points of his own, but he only hit 2-of-6 free throws.
A lot of the missed shots came in crucial situations. Clemson had Duke in trouble in the first half when both Williams and Josh McRoberts picked up two fouls with more than six minutes remaining. The Tigers had traded leads a few times with the Blue Devils, but they ultimately went into the locker room at halftime down by six because they missed 10 of the 13 free throws they took.
Three minutes later, Williams was whistled for the fourth time, sending reserve forward Steve Allen to the line for a one-and-one. Allen connected on the first, eliciting a half-relieved, half-sarcastic cheer from the crowd. With the Tigers down seven and on the verge of a comeback, however, Allen demonstrated Clemson's futility from the line by missing the second. Duke did not look back.
Both head coaches had ideas about why Clemson struggled so much from the line.
"I think they shot less in today's game because they were exerting so much energy," Krzyzewski said. "You get to the line and-even for J.J., J.J. missed four free throws today-that shows you the atmosphere of the game."
Purnell was a bit more realistic.
"Overall we're not good shooters, that's why you see us run into shooting problems sometimes," he deadpanned after the game.
Purnell said normally his team can make up for poor shooting with outstanding defense. And they did do a good job of limiting Duke's high-octane offense, even if the Blue Devils' final point total would not indicate that. But against the No. 1 team in the nation, it's just not possible to sneak away with a victory with that type of performance from the foul line.
Duke did its part to capitalize on Clemson's mistakes. The Blue Devils shot a cool 29-for-36 from the stripe, and four of those seven misses came from the normally rock-solid Redick. The team closed out the game by making nine of its final ten attempts over the last minute.
Clemson-like Virginia Tech and Memphis this season-showed that Duke is beatable if quick guards can get inside and force Williams to choose whether to leave his man or allow the perimeter player to pull up for short jump shots.
The Blue Devils are good enough, though, that they will not beat themselves in a close game. Teams like Clemson may have a chance if they give a "winning effort," as Krzyzewski said, but they cannot afford to slip in any aspect of the game if they expect to knock Duke off its ever-growing pedestal.
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