PROVIDENCE, R.I.—Duke seemed destined for the Sweet 16 at halftime Saturday, leading 48-23 after shooting 60.7 percent from the floor and knocking down nine 3-pointers in the first 20 minutes.
With a minute to go, nothing was certain.
But the fourth-seeded Blue Devils made six of seven free throws down the stretch and survived a huge Yale comeback, downing the 12th-seeded Bulldogs 71-64 at the Dunkin' Donuts Center to advance to the West Regional semifinals next week in Anaheim, Calif. Sophomore Grayson Allen scored 29 points—22 of them in the first half—and freshman swingman Brandon Ingram added 25 for Duke, which watched a 27-point lead dwindle down to four in the closing minutes.
“We didn’t let the building crash in on us,” said freshman Luke Kennard, who hit a pair of free throws with the Blue Devils leading 65-61 with 52 seconds left. “Everything was going their way, the momentum was their way…we just stuck in there, made big shots, made big free throws.”
Duke (25-10) broke the game open with an 18-0 outburst in the first half to take a 46-19 lead. The Blue Devils scored on six straight possessions, with Kennard and Ingram first nailing triples and Allen scoring four straight times in a variety of ways—a breakaway dunk, two 3-pointers and a jumper.
Yale (23-7) responded with four straight points by sophomore Makai Mason, who had been held in check to that point after scoring a career-high 31 points Thursday against Baylor. Only two days earlier, Marshall Plumlee energized his team with a few minutes left in the first half by taking off his mask despite a broken nose and leading Duke to a second-half comeback victory. But at around the same juncture Saturday, Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski sensed a lack of focus in his team—up 46-23—and called a timeout, in which he animatedly chastised his players.
“We’re young, and we acted young,” Krzyzewski said. “Grayson was in a zone there…and when he hit the last one, he came back, and he didn’t know who he had, and he was in la-la land.”
Allen and the Blue Devils showed their youth again on what appeared to be the final play of the half. With about 12 seconds left, Krzyzewski motioned from the sidelines for Allen to start dribbling toward the hoop. Instead, he turned the ball over, and with six seconds remaining, fouled Brandon Sherrod.
"They got open, and he commits that dumb foul," Krzyzewski said. "Like what are you doing?"
The Bulldogs carried the momentum into the locker room and emerged playing like a new team. Yale—led by senior starters who did not want to see their careers end—opened the second half with a flurry of baskets, going on a 15-0 run to get back within seven. Sherrod and Ivy League Player of the Year Justin Sears—who finished with a combined 10 offensive rebounds—dominated the interior and scored 11 straight points during the run.
After shooting 1-of-11 from beyond the arc in the first half, the Bulldogs added a pair of triples, and a Blue Devil team that gave up a 16-point lead to Notre Dame in the second half of last week’s ACC tournament quarterfinals was watching another big lead evaporate. During another timeout, Plumlee shook teammates and implored them to get things together.
“We just weren’t into it,” Kennard said. “That is what Marshall saw in all of us.... It was the faces that everybody had.”
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The Blue Devils stopped the bleeding on an Ingram lay-up and led 56-47 with 11:13 to go. The Kinston, N.C., native drilled a jumper four minutes later that briefly stretched the lead back to double-digits, but again Yale hung around. The trio of Sears, Sherrod and Mason scored 15 of the Bulldogs’ final 17 points, and a pair of Sears free throws trimmed the Duke lead to 65-61.
Sherrod went to the foul line with 41 seconds left and made his first foul shot to make it a five-point game before missing the second. But in the scrum for the loose ball, Sears tapped it back up and in to keep Duke sweating.
Ingram made two foul shots on the other end, and Sherrod got the ball in the paint, but as he spun under the hoop to avoid a leaping Allen, he laid up a shot off the glass that hung on the rim before spilling out.
Duke had the game well in hand early on as hot shooting propelled the Blue Devils to a huge lead. Kennard hit back-to-back triples sandwiched around a drawn charge to open an 18-13 advantage, and a Derryck Thornton lay up extended the 8-0 run. On the other end of the floor, the Blue Devil zone cooled Yale by forcing shots from the perimeter, where the Bulldogs finished just 1-of-11 in the first half.
“I told my staff at halftime, I said, ‘You know, we have kind of like fool’s gold a little bit, in that we think we’re playing better defense than we are,” Krzyzewski said. “Their two wings are 40 percent 3-point shooters, and they didn’t hit a shot [in the first half] and in the second half they did.”
Allen scored 17 points during the last 10 minutes of the first half, going 8-of-11 from the floor and 4-of-6 from downtown. But the sophomore was limited to just seven points after halftime, the final two of them coming at the charity stripe with 8.2 seconds left to seal the win.
Mason struggled throughout the contest against Matt Jones’ man pressure and Duke’s 1-3-1 defense. The sophomore finished 2-of-12 from the field and 0-of-5 from deep for only eight points.
“What Brandon did on top of that zone was magnificent because he shaded Mason and gave the other kids a little bit more room,” Krzyzewski said. “You can’t practice against that unless you have a guy who’s 6-foot-8 1/2 and a 7-foot-3 wingspan.”
Duke will face top-seeded Oregon Thursday night in the Sweet 16. The Ducks beat St. Joseph’s 79-75 Sunday night.