There are plenty of positives to take away from Saturday’s feel-good win against previously undefeated No. 3 Virginia. Justise Winslow looked to be his old self for the first time in an eternity. Mike Krzyzewski adjusted beautifully mid-game to unveil a 3-2 zone. Matt Jones and Grayson Allen adequately replaced Rasheed Sulaimon’s production.
But most importantly, the Blue Devils showed fight.
Duke finds itself 5-3 through the first eight conference games, and a recurring theme through all of those games has been a weak performance in the second half. Coming into the Virginia game, the Blue Devils had been outscored in the second half in four of seven ACC games, and over the seven games had been outscored by 23 points in the final 20 minutes. That is compared to outscoring opponents by 47 points in the first half of those seven games.
Of the three games that Duke did outscore their opposition in the second half, two of them came against teams on the outside of Ken Pomeroy’s top 100—Boston College and Wake Forest. The third was an impressive showing against Louisville, in which the Blue Devils still managed to watch a 21-point lead crumble to 11 by the end of the game.
Part of the problem in the second half of games has been the team’s inability to consistently get baskets. Against Miami, Duke went 4:09 without a field goal. In South Bend it was 5:30, and against Pittsburgh it was 7:10. Even against Louisville, in the rare game the Blue Devils won the second half, they still went without a field goal for the final 7:58 of the game. That doesn’t mean Duke isn’t scoring at all—in most of these droughts there are a few free throws sprinkled in—but it’s hard to gain any sort of momentum when you don’t see the ball going through the cylinder. Negativity starts creeping into the mind and shot selection becomes questionable at best.
The second-half slump plagued Duke once again against Virginia, as the team went without a field goal for a jaw-dropping 9:37 from the 3:00 mark of the first half to the 13:23 point in the second half. During that time a four-point Blue Devil lead disintegrated into an 11-point deficit.
But the young, emotional Duke team did not roll over the way it has in some previous games. The Blue Devils didn’t succumb to the shooting slump the way they did against Notre Dame earlier that week, or N.C. State at the beginning of the month.
Big Game Tyus Jones broke the slump with a layup, and canned the team’s first triple of the night after Matt Jones connected on a hoop of his own. Then Duke rattled off four straight buckets courtesy of Winslow, Quinn Cook and Jahlil Okafor.
But just when momentum was coming back around Duke’s way, Winslow committed the flagrant foul that should have deflated even the most optimistic of teams. A five-point deficit became nine thanks to one frustration play from an emotional freshman.
But while a normal team would concede and start hanging their heads, Duke got yet another lift from what was supposed to be the source of controversy this season—their two point guards.
Just like they did against St. John’s, where Cook and Tyus Jones combined for 10 of the team’s last 11 points, the dynamic duo dominated down the stretch. Cook and Jones scored 15 of the team’s final 22 points, and assisted on five of the other seven. They had their fingers on the pulse of the game and manipulated the stingy Virginia defense into allowing 22 points in the final 5:08 after the Cavaliers stifled Duke to the tune of 26 points in the first half total. It was the determination and resiliency of the backcourt that allowed the Blue Devils for the first time to outscore an ACC opponent by more points in the second half than the first half.
It was an incredibly emotional week for the Blue Devils. They fought from behind at the World’s Most Famous Arena to earn Mike Krzyzewski his 1000th victory. They blew a late lead and watched Jerian Grant take over in a loss at Notre Dame. Then they said goodbye to friend and teammate Rasheed Sulaimon, in a move that could have torpedoed what has been very good team chemistry this season.
And then, after getting kicked while they were down, with all of the raw emotion and hurt, Duke managed to pull the upset over Virginia.
The team showed “fight” isn’t just something they say when they break huddle after a timeout. It’s something they embody. Something they’ve mastered.
And something that can carry them deep into March.
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