Short-handed Duke plays 'Strong Together' without Okafor

Duke entered Saturday's matchup against Clemson with just seven healthy scholarship players available. But it was more than enough to handle the Tigers.

The Blue Devils used a 2-3 zone and a three-quarter-court press for most of Saturday's game to mitigate the absence of freshman center Jahlil Okafor, sidelined with an ankle injury sustained in Wednesday's victory against North Carolina. Duke's aggressive zone defense and press allowed the Blue Devils to overcome its lack of depth and control the pace of play against Clemson.

"After Syracuse and North Carolina, the emotional wins, and Jahlil [Okafor's] injury, we're down to seven guys," Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski said. "For us to play like this is spectacular. I'm so proud of them."

The coaching staff had been monitoring Okafor's ankle since he rolled it on Tar Heel forward Joel James' foot late in the first half Wednesday. Although he was able to finish the game against North Carolina, two days worth of sitting and swelling ended up causing the freshman center too much pain to play.

The coaches knew that Okafor would likely be out for Saturday's game by Friday evening, but Krzyzewski and his staff did not reveal their decision to sit the Chicago native until shortly before gametime. Okafor walked onto the court just before tip-off wearing a suit and protective boot on his left ankle.

"Last night we kind of knew," Krzyzewski said. "You could see tears in [Okafor's] eyes. The kid wanted to play so badly."

By withholding the decision to sit Okafor, Krzyzewski—who had prepared two different game plans himself—forced Clemson to prepare for two different scenarios—playing against the freshman center or not.

"I had 20 minutes to figure it out," Clemson head coach Brad Brownell said. "We practiced for two days on how to guard [Okafor], but it's vastly different with a smaller team."

With Okafor out and Duke boasting just three players 6-foot-6 or taller, the Blue Devils used a zone defense to protect the paint against a bigger Clemson lineup. The zone gave the Tigers fits, as they had just one player—forward Jaron Blossomgame—in double-digits by the final buzzer. Clemson's starting five shot 13-of-34 from the floor.

But the decision to play a zone defense was about more than just the matchup against the Tigers.

"Our theme for today was 'Strong Together,'" Krzyzewski said. "We thought that with the three-quarter court pick-up we could be strong without getting hurt further up the court. [Our guys] knew they had each other's back."

The decision to stick with the zone for the majority of the game paid dividends for Duke on both ends of the court.

The Blue Devils recorded 10 steals, including four apiece by freshmen Justise Winslow and Tyus Jones. Duke outscored Clemson 19-4 in transition, as live-ball turnovers led to run-out layups and open 3-point attempts at critical moments of the game.

"Seeing the ball go in made the defense play a little better, and we got some steals and run-outs," Krzyzewski said. "When you hit some layups and hit a couple of threes, the world is really good."

The fast pace was especially kind to Winslow—who poured in a career-high-tying 20 points, including 17 in the first half alone—and Cook, who matched his career high with 27 points, set against the Tigers in 2013.

Clemson's backcourt struggled against Duke's new-look defense. Starting guards Rod Hall and Jordan Roper committed a combined seven turnovers—half of the Tigers' total of 14.

"The guards didn't play well, and the soft press bothered us all game," Brownell said. "We acted like we've never seen that before, and it just threw us out of rhythm a bit. I thought we played scared."

Jones and Grayson Allen also benefited from the Tigers' poor ball control on the offensive end. Jones tallied nine assists to go along with 11 points, just missing his third double-double of the season. Allen added 10 points of his own, his highest scoring total since an 18-point performance in the season opener against Presbyterian.

Some of the swelling in Okafor's ankle has gone down since last Wednesday's game against the Tar Heels, Krzyzewski said after the game, but the freshman is still questionable for Wednesday's matchup against Virginia Tech.

But with the success of the zone and press and the offensive efficiency displayed by the Blue Devils Saturday afternoon, Okafor's absence becomes much less painful if he is unable to go against the Hokies.


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