With 1:07 left in the first half Wednesday, Yale called timeout. The Bulldogs had dominated on the glass in the opening minutes, outscoring the Blue Devils 26-16 in the paint and 12-3 in second-chance points on the road. The result was a slim two-point lead and a quiet, nervous Cameron Indoor Stadium.
But when play resumed, a flurry of bodies hit the deck scrambling for a loose ball. It found its way into the hands of Duke freshman Luke Kennard, who threw a pass from his seat on the floor of Coach K Court down toward his basket, knowing that Grayson Allen would be there.
"Did he dunk it?" Kennard asked postgame. "I didn't even watch it—I looked at the bench and I was flexing at the bench saying 'Let's go!' because I knew he would do something."
Allen did indeed dunk it—a two-handed slam that tied the game at 36-36. On the very next possession, junior Matt Jones forced another Yale turnover and did things himself, going coast-to-coast to give Duke a 38-36 lead heading into the locker room.
The frenetic finish set the stage for a strong second half that propelled the No. 6 Blue Devils to an 80-61 win on a night that began very differently than the final score indicated.
"The last three minutes, we brought a lot of loose energy to the floor—diving on loose balls," Kennard said. "[In] that moment, there was a lot of energy, the bench was going crazy. That little spurt at the end of the first half really lifted us going into halftime and definitely came out into the second half."
Duke (5-1) rattled off 12 of the first 14 points to start the second half, keyed by its 1-3-1 zone defense—which better contained the penetration of the Bulldog guards—and the hot shooting of Jones, who scored a team-high 17 points.
Mired in early-season slumps before Wednesday, Kennard and classmate Brandon Ingram came alive as well, combining for 27 points off the bench.
"I thought we were tired from last week. We needed a pop from Brandon and Luke and we got it tonight," Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski said. "I think that's who we're going to be for a while. It's going to be tough to get all of them to play at the consistent level that we would like.... That's growing up. They haven't been through anything like this."
But for as well as the Blue Devils played in the second half, they looked just as sluggish in the first, and Yale made them pay.
The Bulldogs (3-2) led by nine before many fans had even settled into their seats, and it took Duke the entirety of of the first half to grab the lead back for good. Yale scored the game's first nine points by controlling the paint, corralling the first six rebounds—four of them offensive—and out-hustled the Blue Devils for several loose balls.
The quick start was keyed by the play of forwards Brandon Sherrod and Justin Sears—who out-jumped and out-muscled Ingram and others on multiple occasions—on the block and the dribble-penetration of guards Makai Mason and Jack Montague.
"They came out and they hit us in the mouth—obviously they're a confident team," Jones said. "It's been a couple of games now that we've come out kind of sluggish. I don't have the answer right now, we just have to continue to watch film and continue just to talk to each other and figure out what's holding us back at the beginning of the game."
After Ingram subbed in and drilled a 3-pointer on his first shot of the game, Duke slowly dug its way out of the hole and briefly grabbed a 20-19 lead, but the Bulldogs responded with eight unanswered to put the home crowd back on edge.
Ingram endured a handful of sluggish performances last week that cost him his starting spot, but the highly-touted swingman native was more engaged on both ends of the floor Wednesday, tying a career-high with five rebounds.
"I think he's just adapting," Krzyzewski said. "There's an evolution with each one of these kids. We have to be patient up to a point, hard up to a point and overall understanding of the process."
Ingram also had a hand in flipping the momentum of the game on the other end of the floor with his length.
Unable to slow the Bulldogs as they drove through the lane, Duke abandoned its man-to-man scheme yet again in favor of the 1-3-1, featuring the long wingspans of Jefferson and Ingram up top. The tactical switch paid its dividends, including the game-changing sequence just before halftime kickstarted by Kennard's dive and outlet pass.
The Blue Devils remained in the zone after halftime, and the defense continued to feed the offense. Allen deflected several cross-court passes and a Yale turnover led to a Jones 3-pointer in transition as Duke opened the period on a 12-2 run.
The Bulldogs narrowed the gap to eight, but the comeback bid took a big blow with 11:15 when Sherrod picked up his fifth foul, forcing him to the bench. The Blue Devils found some openings in the lane in his absence—finishing through contact several times—and extended their lead to 66-50 with 6:34 left after seven straight points by Jones.
The reigning Ivy League Player of the Year, Sears continued to wreak havoc in the paint, posting 19 points and six rebounds. But Yale settled for too many perimeter jumpers over the top of the zone and could not claw its way back in the closing minutes.
Duke takes a brief break for Thanksgiving before hosting Utah State Sunday at 12:30 p.m.
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