NEW YORK—With 4:35 remaining in the first half, the Blue Devils executed one of their best possessions of the game, whipping the ball from side to side until sophomore Luke Kennard hit forward Amile Jefferson under the rim for an easy dunk.
After a sluggish start to the game, the masterful display of ball movement was just what Duke needed on its way to a seventh consecutive victory.
The fifth-ranked Blue Devils overcame a slow start to top No. 21 Florida 84-74 Tuesday evening in the Jimmy V Classic at Madison Square Garden. Duke started the game just 4-of-13 from the floor, but Kennard and Jefferson led the way once again with 53 points combined.
Freshman swingman Jayson Tatum also came off the bench to post 22 points in his second game of the year.
“Luke kind of took the game over. We had a good thing going there,” Blue Devil head coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “All of our guys went to him and then Jayson had a thing going. Even one time, I called something for Amile and Amile said go to [Jayson]. That’s the kind of kids I have and he made a better decision than I did.”
The victory marked the first time since Jan. 20, 2001, that three Duke players scored at least 22 points in the same game.
Coming off of career-high scoring performances in the Blue Devils’ last outing against Maine, Kennard and Jefferson carried Duke (9-1) in the first half and combined for 31 points on 14-of-18 shooting.
Jefferson bested his performance Saturday with a new career-high with 24 points along with 15 rebounds to notch his fifth double-double in his last seven games.
With the graduate student anchoring the Blue Devils down low, Kennard caught fire from deep in the second half as he connected on five 3-pointers to prevent Florida (7-2) from making a run and finished with 29 points on 16 shots. For much of the first half, the sophomore was the only player Duke could rely on for offense, scoring off of screens and an array of dribble moves.
The Gator defense was aggressive to start the game and Florida’s length down low impacted a handful of Blue Devil drives to the basket. At 6-foot-11, redshirt junior John Egbunu made his presence felt, blocking three shots in the first 20 minutes.
But the Blue Devils began to find their way down the stretch with a 19-6 run spearheaded by Duke’s leading scorers alongside junior Grayson Allen—who struggled shooting but had a career-high eight assists—and senior Matt Jones.
Tatum infused Duke with some much-needed energy, getting his hands in the passing lane twice and crashing the boards to help spur the Blue Devils in transition. Although the freshman missed a few looks at the basket on offense, Tatum drew the attention of the Florida defense and helped space the floor for Duke as the team began to move the ball and generate much better looks.
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“We actually said at halftime that his steal and pressure kind of turned the game around and it turned him around too,” Krzyzewski said. “He had a great block that time and he had eight defensive rebounds. That was a big turning point for us and he did it defensively for us.”
Coming out of halftime with a 10-point lead, Krzyzewski opted to start the five players that spurred Duke’s late first-half run.
The Gators quickly cut the Blue Devil lead to six, but Kennard’s hot shooting kept the Gators—who allowed a season-high in points—from getting any closer.
The sophomore continued to feast on open looks as Florida’s defense struggled to track the guard behind the 3-point line.
“It starts with the movement we have on the offensive end,” Kennard said. “We have a lot of scorers, a lot of playmakers and if we move offensively, it’s just a thing where it’s tough to guard. It’s basketball—guys lose their man if we drive, if we move a lot and they’ve got to help.”
Although the Gators continued to hang around as they cut the lead to 61-54 with 8:10 remaining, Tatum shut the door on a Florida comeback.
After another Kennard triple, the St. Louis native scored eight consecutive points to put the game out of reach, culminating with a fall-away jumper that left the forward nodding at former Blue Devil Kyrie Irving on the sidelines.
“Every time they made a play, we did a great job of coming back and taking the air out of the ball—using 20 seconds and then getting up a good shot,” Jefferson said. “Whether it was Luke, whether it was Jayson, whether it was [Grayson] penetrating and finding somebody, our guys did an amazing job of never splintering.”
Duke will next take the court Saturday for a matchup against UNLV in Las Vegas and have another opportunity to shake the rust off some of its players returning from injury. Freshman Marques Bolden played in his second game Tuesday but played only two minutes in the first half after picking up two quick fouls. Bolden played 12 minutes against Maine Saturday.
After the game, Krzyzewski said that the Blue Devils hope to add five-star freshman Harry Giles to the mix before Christmas—Duke takes on Tennessee State Dec. 19 and Elon Dec. 21.
“Harry’s practicing—he hasn’t had as much contact yet,” Krzyzewski said. “We’re hoping before Christmas—those two games. I’d like to see what he does during the exam period with a little more contact and then we’ll go forward with that.”