When Duke has been successful this year, it has mostly been on the backs of two players—Grayson Allen and Brandon Ingram.
The pair represents the top scoring duo in the ACC at 38.2 points per game, and are the only underclassmen among the conference’s top dozen scorers, carrying a young squad through the rigors of a long season.
But in the Blue Devils’ showdown with North Carolina Saturday, they were missing contributions from half of that couple.
Allen paced Duke with team-highs of 29 points and five assists, shouldering much of the load as his younger sidekick was notably passive. Ingram finished the game with 10 points—his second-lowest total in conference play—and was almost entirely ineffective in the first half, when he was held scoreless on just one field goal attempt. The Kinston, N.C., native picked up his second foul less than nine minutes into the game and was forced to ride the bench for the remainder of the first half.
Duke was in a 20-9 hole at that point and eventually closed the half down eight with Ingram off the floor. Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski said he would have inserted Ingram back in during the first half were it not for his teammates chipping away at the Tar Heels’ lead on their own, but knows that the Blue Devils cannot thrive long-term—or in the postseason—without production from their prized 6-foot-9 swingman.
“Not having [Ingram] out there is bad for everyone because he’s really good,” Krzyzewski said. “Even for spacing, the attention that he would draw, wherever he is, gets a little bit maybe more space where someone doesn’t see you. For us to win anything substantial, we have to have [him] and Grayson on the court all the time.
When the second half started, Ingram was back on the floor guarding North Carolina center Kennedy Meeks instead of forward Brice Johnson. After Johnson corralled one of his 12 offensive rebounds and went up for a putback, though, Ingram made contact with his arm and was whistled for his third foul less than a minute into the second half.
The pressing foul trouble caused Krzyzewski to switch away from man defense and into a 2-3 zone, allowing Ingram to stay on the floor with a lesser risk of contact. The change allowed the Tar Heels—who had already grabbed 10 offensive rebounds in the first half—to exploit the Blue Devils on the glass even further and get inside for several easy chances.
The zone goaded North Carolina into taking more perimeter shots—where the Tar Heels connected on just 4-of-23 3-pointers—and was effective in limiting them to 28 percent shooting in the second half. But Duke was unable to protect against the sheer number of opportunities North Carolina earned, yielding 17 offensive boards in the final 20 minutes—including six on a single possession.
“As soon as Brandon got the third foul, [we switched to zone] right away,” Krzyzewski said. “We didn’t pre-see playing zone at all if we’re not in foul trouble. But we didn’t do a bad job of it except for rebounding. We’re not that proficient at it. I thought we handled it well, but we didn’t finish the exchange on the rebound.”
After picking up his third foul, Ingram became more aggressive on the offensive end and looked to assert himself for the first time all night. He proceeded to take four of the Blue Devils’ next six shots and scored all 10 of his points in a nine-minute span as Duke whittled the Tar Heel lead down to 55-53.
“I knew I had to be aggressive going into the second half. I was sitting out for a long time and I just tried to stay into the game on the bench,” Ingram said. “I tried to get those guys pumped up and keep it going while it was the first half. After we played so horribly, we were only down eight and [in the second half] we tried to make a push.”
Just as Ingram was settling into his groove, things turned sour again for the lanky freshman. He picked up his fourth foul with 10:07 to go, setting up a tricky situation for Krzyzewski as he had to balance the risk of losing his most versatile weapon.
But as he did in the first contest with North Carolina—when center Marshall Plumlee played the final 10:51 with four fouls—Krzyzewski trusted his player to be effective without fouling, and Ingram did not come off the court.
Ingram, though, had been in a similar position before. In Duke’s road loss to Clemson Jan. 13, he was saddled with three fouls before halftime and still played 34 minutes, but was less productive in the second half, when he scored only one point.
“Just be smart. I knew from experience to just be smart,” Ingram said. “It happened a couple of times earlier in the season. I just tried to stay aggressive and make some winning plays.”
Duke as a team did not make enough of those winning plays, and Ingram misfired on all four of his shots in the final 10 minutes. He finished just 3-of-12 from the field—his seventh straight game shooting worse than 50 percent—and was a shell of the dynamic player Blue Devil fans enjoyed for much of the season.
At a slight 6-foot-9 and 190 pounds, the topic of fatigue has been brought up repeatedly surrounding Ingram. Both he and Krzyzewski have pointed to it increasingly as the season has worn on, and it has been evident in his play of late. But with the regular season now in the rearview mirror, the Blue Devils need Ingram to once again become the two-way force he is capable of being if they are to have any hopes of making noise in the postseason.
“He’s such an important part of our team, offensively and defensively,” Allen said. “Offensively, he gives us another dimension where we can spread the floor and he can make a lot of plays with the ball in his hand. Defensively, he can get after it with his length and block some shots. He can grab some rebounds above everyone else’s arms, and so we missed that.”
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