Just over seven minutes into Saturday night's game, sophomore Gerald Henderson found himself wide open in the left corner.
The St. John's defense had been drawn into the paint by a streaking Jon Scheyer, who dished a quick pass out to Henderson from the baseline. An instant later, the guard elevated and let loose a long three from his brace-protected right wrist.
For seven long minutes before that shot, Duke looked like the team that had dropped consecutive games to unranked Wake Forest and Miami. Before that shot, the Blue Devils had trailed Big East bottom-feeder St. John's by as many as seven points and seemed to play the sloppy, out-of-sync basketball that characterized the two losses.
But after Henderson's shot fell through for three points, Duke took the lead, 13-12, and never looked back. After that shot, the Blue Devils came back out to play.
Three and a half minutes and an 11-0 run later, Duke was up 10 and had exorcised whatever demons had plagued them for the last week.
"It's been a long week for us starting Sunday night at 7:30," said head coach Mike Krzyzeswki, referring to last week's loss at Wake Forest. "Those two losses knocked us back. We're not an established team yet. The roots of confidence individually and collectively are not deep yet-they shouldn't be with so many developing players. So when you get knocked back you have to reestablish those roots."
A resurgent Henderson was a big reason for the Blue Devils' improvement. His key three-pointer sandwiched two other field goals that gave him seven straight points to single-handedly pull Duke back into the game.
Hurting from a grade-three sprain in his shooting wrist for which Krzyzewski said would require postseason surgery, Henderson had shot a combined 2-for-8 in Duke's two recent losses and rarely flashed the aggressive athleticism that he is known for.
After coming off the bench at the 16:10 mark, however, Henderson provided the spark that Duke needed. Besides finding his shooting touch and even slamming home two alley-oops to finish with 13 points, the guard also added a block and two steals on the other end of the court.
"His defense was better than it's been for the last month," Krzyzewski said. "Since [spraining his wrist] he's probably averaged six points a game and seemed distracted a little bit on defense.... It was probably the thing I was most pleased with."
Led by an improved Henderson, Duke returned to the stifling team defense that had helped it to 10 straight ACC victories before allowing 86 and 96 points, respectively, to Wake Forest and Miami.
St. John's raced out to score 11 points in the first five minutes of the game while Duke failed to establish a consistent defense.
But when Duke clamped down, St. John's could not compete, posting only five points in the next five minutes.
"I got very emotional throughout the first half because that's what I was trying to get out of my team," Krzyzewski said. "Like, 'Come on, get it up.'"
Duke completely disrupted the Red Storm's offense by cutting off passing lanes and consistently interrupting their sets. In doing so, the Blue Devils racked up 11 steals and five blocks in the game.
"Defense is what got us exactly where we are," said Lance Thomas, who added five points and a block for Duke. "It motivates us to keep playing hard, and that's where a lot of offense comes from so we have to keep doing that."
The Blue Devils' 21 fast-break points against St. John's were perhaps the best indicator of the defense's impact. Playing poor defense against Wake Forest, Duke scored eight fast-break points and a dismal two against Miami.
"They're a good basketball team and can beat you in so many ways," St. John's head coach Norm Roberts said. "We didn't do a great job in transition and a lot of it happened because we missed a lot of shots, a lot open shots that led to long rebounds that got them out in their break."
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