INDIANAPOLIS—Youth and athleticism met experience and poise Tuesday night.
No. 4 Duke knocked off No. 19 Michigan State 81-71 at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis in the first game of the fourth annual Champions Classic Tuesday night.
Although the Blue Devils cooled off slightly after shooting better than 60 percent in their first two contests against a disciplined Spartan defense, the trio of Jahlil Okafor, Justise Winslow and senior Quinn Cook made enough plays in the first half to give Duke a seven-point halftime lead.
Freshman point guard Tyus Jones then closed the game out for the Blue Devils, scoring all 17 of his points in the second half to help Duke pull away.
“We were efficient,” Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “I thought we were strong with the ball, [with] only eight turnovers. I thought in the first half we didn’t run our sets as well as we could, although we got off to a good start with [Okafor]. I thought we handled [the big stage] well.”
The trio of Okafor, Winslow and Cook combined for 51 points, 14 rebounds and 10 assists, but it wasn’t until some timely plays from Jones that Duke was able to pull away.
The Apple Valley, Minn., native was held scoreless in the opening half, but took over when Okafor went to the bench with four fouls with more than eight minutes remaining. Jones scored six quick points after Okafor exited, including a four-point play that gave the Blue Devils a 64-51 lead with 7:58 left in the game, to ensure that Duke did not surrender the lead it had from the opening tip.
After Jones’ heroics, the Blue Devils were able to use its 26-10 edge in free throw attempts to maintain the advantage down the stretch. Winslow led Duke in free throw attempts, using his powerful 6-foot-6, 225-pound frame to get to the line nine times.
The Houston native knocked down six of the nine attempts, imposing his will to make an impact with 15 points and six rebounds despite going just 4-of-11 from the field.
“I missed too many [free throws] tonight and let my team down a little bit,” Winslow said. “[But I tried to] just keep getting to the line. I want to be around that nine, 10 free throw range and just keep attacking the basket and get that.”
Despite getting strong play from four of its best players, Duke’s first win against a ranked opponent did not come easily.
Every time the Blue Devils threatened to pull away and built a sizable double-digit lead in the first 30 minutes of the game, Michigan State would respond with timely plays on both ends of the court.
The veteran trio of Branden Dawson, Denzel Valentine and Travis Trice countered Duke’s best trio, combining for 46 points, 19 rebounds and 11 assists to give the Blue Devils all they wanted.
The noticeable missing aspect for Duke (3-0) in its third game was bench production, as Blue Devil reserves combined for just seven points on 2-of-7 shooting and failed to continue the momentum when the stars went to the bench.
But in the early going, Okafor carried the load, scoring eight quick points on 4-of-4 shooting against Michigan State (1-1) forward Matt Costello and sparking Duke’s game-opening 12-4 run.
The Chicago native went on to finish with 17 points on 8-of-10 shooting and is now 25-of-30 from the field through three games.
“I felt pretty comfortable, especially in the early going,” Okafor said. “My teammates were looking for me and they gave me a lot of confidence. [The plan was definitely to] get me some touches early and see how Michigan State was going to play.”
The junior Costello and his Spartan teammates responded to Okafor’s early onslaught by racking up eight offensive rebounds and making enough plays to stay within striking distance in the opening period.
The Blue Devils made their first seven shots of the game, but were unable to maintain a significant advantage because of defensive lapses and six turnovers.
Despite its periodical mistakes, Duke took a 40-33 lead into the locker room thanks to 10 points apiece from Okafor, Cook and Winslow and 19 points off 10 Spartan turnovers.
The takeaways fueled the Blue Devils’ 10-2 edge in fastbreak points in the early-going and made up for Duke’s inefficiency in its halfcourt sets.
“A lot of [the turnovers were] on us,” Trice said. “We kind of forced some plays and were lackadaisical with the ball, but you’ve got to give them credit too because [Duke] did a great job on defense.”
Both teams cleaned up some of their mistakes in the second half, with Michigan State coughing it up just three times and the Blue Devils surrendering just five Michigan State offensive rebounds to finally get some breathing room late in the game.
Duke was only outrebounded 17-14 in the second half after being dominated 18-11 in the first period and giving up seven second-chance points.
“Coming into the game, we knew they were a really physical team and were really going to attack the offensive glass,” Okafor said. “At halftime we just reinstated that we were going to need to attack the glass [to win].”
Throughout the game, Duke also did a great job contesting 3-point shots, holding Michigan State to 5-of-20 shooting beyond the arc. Junior guard Bryn Forbes was the only Spartan that could connect from long range, knocking down three huge treys to keep Michigan State within shouting distance.
But despite Forbes’ success, teams are now 8-of-46 from deep against Duke this season.
After their biggest win of the season, the Blue Devils will take the court again Friday for another marquee game, a contest against Temple Friday night at 9:30 p.m. at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, N.Y., in the semifinals of the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic.
Rebounding and bench production will likely be the focus between now and then, but Krzyzewski and his staff have to be happy that their team now has big-game experience to draw upon.
“It gives you confidence,” Krzyzewski said, “We get confidence through experience and the harder the experience that you’re successful in, the more confidence you [have].... Today I think we should come away feeling really good about ourselves.”
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