For the past year and a half, it seems like the Blue Devils have been searching for a defensive identity with Amile Jefferson in and out of the lineup.
But with its leader back on the court, Duke showed it is capable of playing suffocating defense Saturday night.
Now the Blue Devils hope to show they can do it consistently.
After storming past Miami thanks to a frenetic defensive effort that sparked a 20-0 second-half surge, No. 18 Duke will look to move back above .500 in league play as it hosts N.C. State at 7 p.m. Monday at Cameron Indoor Stadium.
With Jefferson’s return against the Hurricanes, the Blue Devils will have their full complement of players once again when they face off against a Wolfpack team that sits near the bottom of the ACC standings and has struggled to defend. N.C. State is allowing 84.7 points per contest through seven conference games and surrendered 107 points in a 51-point loss at North Carolina two weeks ago.
However, up against Wolfpack freshman Dennis Smith Jr.—the ACC’s fifth-leading scorer at 18.9 points per contest—less than 48 hours after Duke’s emotional win, the Blue Devils will need to bring the same defensive intensity once again Monday night.
“We can play defense, we just have to want to play defense,” senior Matt Jones said after Saturday’s game. “We have to fight and hone in on that end. If we do that, we can play with the best of them with our length and athleticism.”
The 6-foot-3 Smith Jr. enrolled at N.C. State (13-7, 2-5 in the ACC) as the No. 4 recruit and top-ranked point guard in the Class of 2016 and has proven himself to be the Wolfpack’s lone bright spot this season. In addition to leading his team in points, the Fayetteville, N.C., native is averaging 6.6 assists and 4.4 boards per game.
In the N.C. State backcourt, redshirt senior Terry Henderson averages 15.0 points per night and sharpshooter Maverick Rowan shoots better than 40 percent from 3-point range to give Smith Jr. kick-out options when he drives to the hoop. Reserve Torin Dorn is also shooting nearly 45 percent from beyond the arc and the Wolfpack boast a pair of inconsistent big men with junior Abdul-Malik Abu and and freshman Omer Yurtseven. Both players are capable of scoring inside and crashing the glass but struggle mightily on the defensive end.
With the quick turnaround—something that Duke struggled to handle last season, losing two consecutive Big Monday matchups in late January—keying in on Smith Jr. will be crucial for the Blue Devils to keep N.C. State at bay at Cameron Indoor Stadium. The Wolfpack have not beaten Duke away from home since 1995.
“We’ve handled it this year. We played back to back earlier in the year with less guys,” Blue Devil interim head coach Jeff Capel said Saturday. “Having a day helps us. We’ve got to get some rest, get some treatment.... We’re going to play against a team that can really score and as talented of a guard as there is in college basketball.”
Duke (15-4, 3-3) struggled to find an offensive groove for the first 20 minutes of Saturday’s contest as it had for much of the early portion of its ACC slate. Excluding a lopsided 53-point victory against Georgia Tech, the Blue Devils have averaged 75.8 points per game, with sophomore Luke Kennard making up nearly a quarter of the entire Duke scoring offense and the Blue Devils’ assists numbers taking a big dip.
Against the Hurricanes, though, defense led to offense in the second half. The Blue Devils scored 31 points off 18 Miami turnovers as Kennard sat on the bench for the entire run that turned the game on its head. All eight Duke players who saw action registered at least two points and the Blue Devils shot nearly 67 percent from the field in the second half.
Facing a very vulnerable Wolfpack defense that N.C. State head coach Mark Gottfried described as needing “to get a little tougher” after falling to the Yellow Jackets at home last weekend, Duke should not have trouble finding offense—especially in front of its home crowd.
“We came in at halftime and talked about how we needed life, we needed energy. We had none of that in the first half. There were bad looks, we weren’t tough, all of those things,” Capel said. “That group that started the second half gave us life, they gave us energy. The crowd gave us energy. Our crowd was amazing from the start. They wanted to give us life.”
Amrith Ramkumar and Drew Johnson contributed reporting.
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A junior from just outside Philadelphia, Mitchell is probably reminding you how the Eagles won the Super Bowl this year and that the Phillies are definitely on the rebound. Outside of The Chronicle, he majors in Economics, minors in Statistics and is working toward the PJMS certificate, in addition to playing trombone in the Duke University Marching Band. And if you're getting him a sandwich with beef and cheese outside the state of Pennsylvania, you best not call it a "Philly cheesesteak."