NEW YORK — On a night during which little seemed to go quite right on the offensive end, the Blue Devils secured a spot in the finals of the NIT Season Tip-Off with defensive grit.
Duke had scored 93.8 points per game in the seasons first four contests, but at Madison Square Garden, Arizona State (4-1) dictated the tempo. The Blue Devils' top three scorers-Kyle Singler, Nolan Smith and Jon Scheyer-combined for a 17-for-43 mark from the field in 40 minutes of playing time each and Duke scored just 64 points on the night.
"It was a hard fought game," head coach Mike Krzyzewski said. "We knew it would be that way. You know, you play four games at home, and you're running and shooting and things are going easy. And then all of a sudden, you know, you're going to be in a possession-by possession game against a defense that you haven't played against before."
The Blue Devils went just 4-for-18 on 3-point field goals just one game after hitting 18 shots from deep. And even Scheyer, who hadn't turned the ball over a single time in Duke's first contests, turned the ball over once. But senior Brian Zoubek's seven boards in just 17 minutes of play-a number of which came at crucial times-and sophomore Miles Plumlee's four blocks showed Duke's grit in the hardest fought win the the team has had to fight for all season.
The Blue Devils went into the second half with a four point lead and then held the Sun Devils to just 23 points in the final 20 minutes of play. Duke wasn't able to generate offense from deep, but it played Arizona State's players tight on the perimeter and limited its opponent to 1-of-8 shooting from long range in the second period of play.
"I thought their defensive effort, especially in the second half, was terrific," Arizona State head coach Herb Sendek said. "Nothing came easy for us. Everything was challenged. And I think the difference in the game was their defensive effort."
In that second half, the Blue Devils held the Sun Devils to 28.6 percent shooting from the field and began to develop a low-post presence that was absent early. On the offensive glass, Duke out-rebounded Arizona State 11-to-1 which gave the team a number of second-chance opportunities.
"We've got a lot of shooters on our team, so if we can't get our post moves going the next best things is to get offensive rebounds," Zoubek said. "If we're not hitting [shots] like we were today, that's the next best option. Coach keeps telling us just get on the other side of the glass and it will come to us."
The low-scoring, defensive-minded duel was the type of contest that the Sun Devils have been playing regularly early this season. In five games, Arizona State has allowed just 55 points per game and held its opponents to 35.5% shooting from the field.
The Blue Devils shot 41.8%, but open looks, easy baskets and transition points were very hard to come by. Not including the team's suddenly cold perimeter shooting, though, Duke shot 19-for-37 from the field and its 14-for-18 mark from the charity stripe gave Duke the offensive production it ultimately needed.
Former Duke center Eric Boateng-though he did commit a stunning nine turnovers-anchored the Sun Devils' defense under the basket while a talented starting lineup contributed all but six of Arizona State's 53 points. It was a victory that Krzyzewski felt fortunate to have won.
"I don't think so much survive; I thought we won," Krzyzewski said. "Survive would be if this was like some huge underdog. I think Arizona State is going to contend for their conference championship with the kids they have. Glasser is just a veteran college guard, college point guard who doesn't turn it over. And if you don't guard Kuksiks, he's capable of getting 20 to 30 points in a ballgame. I thought Nate's [McMilla] son, Jamelle, really played well. We couldn't keep him in front of us."
Ultimately, the Blue Devils earned a spot in the finals of the NIT Season Tip-Off and a matchup with Connecticut in the finals on Friday. The win extended Duke's 21-2 all-time record in the tournament, including 11 straight victories.
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