As freshman sensation Dennis Smith Jr. corralled the ball following Jayson Tatum’s game-ending turnover, the guard raced up court and took flight for an exclamation mark on a night in which he ripped Duke’s heart out of its chest.
“I knew it didn’t count. I knew it had no chance of counting, but it was just a statement,” Smith Jr. said.
The N.C. State phenom’s statement could be one of many. It could be that a message that the Wolfpack freshman—one the Blue Devils heavily recruited but failed to ink on signing day—is one of the most exciting talents in college basketball this season.
It could be that an N.C. State team that has underwhelmed to date could be ready to take off as the Wolfpack begin the backstretch of their conference schedule.
But above all, the biggest takeaway from Smith Jr.’s emphatic slam was that the Wolfpack and their leader had the killer instinct Monday—and the Blue Devils didn’t.
Duke has been lauded for its ability to go on spurts and ignite Cameron Indoor Stadium when locked in tight games. The Blue Devils pulled away from Michigan State earlier this season and Miami Saturday on the back of runs that nearly left the arena shaking.
But after looking poised to do the same thing Monday night with a 20-8 run to build a nine-point second-half lead, Duke got complacent and showed some of the problems that have turned the preseason No. 1 team into a squad that is struggling to get above .500 in ACC play.
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“I think we just kind of laid back. We weren’t as energetic as we could’ve been and I think we kind of played in spurts,” freshman Frank Jackson said. “It wasn’t a full effort game. We have to learn how to finish and play the whole 40 minutes.”
As Smith took charge and scored or assisted on N.C. State’s last six field goals in the final 8:38, the Blue Devils missed one open shot after another. As was the case in losses against Florida State and Louisville, Duke looked rattled, and this time, even co-captain Amile Jefferson and the Cameron Crazies could not rescue the Blue Devils.
Although there are a handful of moments the Blue Devils can point to where they failed to put away their opponent, Duke will be especially kicking itself that it failed to inch closer as Smith Jr. struggled down the stretch from the foul line and the Wolfpack continued to keep the Blue Devils in the game.
For Tatum, there were four misses near the hoop that left him and his team frustrated. For Allen, there were a handful of uncontested 3-pointers that clanked off the rim as he finished 1-of-9 from beyond the arc.
“We got good looks in that stretch. We got some wide-open threes with no one near us, we got some drives to the basket,” interim head coach Jeff Capel said. “I thought we got some clean looks there in that stretch.”
The problem for Duke against the Wolfpack wasn’t so much execution as it was an inability to make the big play when it counted most. Unlike Smith Jr. with the Wolfpack, Duke has yet to find its primary option for late-game buckets.
The Blue Devil offense, which flourished in the first half with 12 assists on 17 made shots, ran through Tatum, who had his moments and scored 11 points while playing the entire second half. But Duke’s peripheral weapons left a lot to be desired as the team’s offense stagnated like it did in a near-collapse against Boston College a few weeks ago.
“We can’t be a young team and think that the game is over,” sophomore Luke Kennard said. “We have to stay the course of what we’ve been doing and just do that.”
Although the team’s inability to jell early in the season due to injuries has become the go-to excuse for the team’s current struggles, the Blue Devils' inability to play cohesively for long stretches goes far beyond their youth or October adversity.
Allen and Kennard—who came off the bench against the Wolfpack—remained quiet down the stretch when Duke needed a basket the most. Jefferson has yet to appear like himself following his return from a right-foot bone bruise, leaving senior Matt Jones—who shot only 1-of-6 in the second half himself—as the only upperclassman that has pulled his weight in the past week.
The Blue Devils came into their two-game home swing against Miami and N.C. State looking to right the ship and build momentum in what has already been a roller-coaster season. Instead, Duke finds itself with more questions than answers and in need of a serious look in the mirror with stiff ACC challenges still ahead.
As Tatum sat with a sullen face in front of his locker room rehashing the final sequence of the game, the freshman harped on his failure to push the ball ahead as time expired.
But in the coming weeks, it will be the Blue Devil team that needs to push ahead—this time with the aggressive mentality Smith Jr. showed them Monday night.