The last time the Blue Devils took the floor against Wake Forest, they were a completely different unit struggling to develop an identity with head coach Mike Krzyzewski still on the mend from back surgery.
But after Luke Kennard connected on all 10 of his second-half shots and carried the team to victory, Duke has not looked back since.
Looking to extend their six-game winning streak, the 12th-ranked Blue Devils return home to take on the Demon Deacons Saturday at 1 p.m. at Cameron Indoor Stadium. In the first matchup between the teams, Duke rallied from 10 down with less than four minutes to play and pulled ahead when Kennard drilled a triple with 6.6 seconds remaining to give the Blue Devils an 85-83 cushion.
“The one constant is that when we fight, we have a chance to stay in games,” graduate student Amile Jefferson said following the win on Jan. 28. “When we don’t get deflated, don’t give up and keep fighting, we give ourselves a chance.”
Since that time, Duke has raised its fight to another level and catapulted itself back into ACC regular-season title contention.
Although it may be a stretch to say Kennard’s performance saved the season, it is clear that the game gave the Blue Devils (21-5, 9-4 in the ACC) much-needed confidence on the road after losing their first three ACC road games by an average of 13.0 points per contest. The win against Wake Forest was Duke’s first away from home in conference play and the Blue Devils have followed it up with gritty victories at then-No. 20 Notre Dame and at No. 14 Virginia Wednesday.
“We’re just coming together and learning how to win ballgames, especially tough ones on the road like we did at Wake and Notre Dame and especially tonight,” freshman Jayson Tatum said after scoring a career-high 28 points to lead Duke to a 65-55 defeat of the Cavaliers.
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But the Blue Devils will have to be wary of the big-game hangover symptoms they have struggled with at times this year against a Demon Deacon team desperate for resume-boosting wins to push them into the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2010.
Following each of Duke’s biggest victories in its recent stretch, the Blue Devils have turned in a sluggish performance that reignites questions about the team.
After the game against the Fighting Irish, the Blue Devils struggled to pull away from a Pittsburgh team that came to Durham with a 1-8 record in the ACC. Two days after Duke’s home win against North Carolina, the Blue Devils needed a defensive stand as time expired to eke out a victory against Clemson.
The ups-and-downs have coincided with the play of Tatum, who has averaged nearly twice as many points in the three wins against ranked opponents compared to the other two games in the stretch. Although the freshman’s 3-point barrage stole the show Wednesday night, Krzyzewski credited other facets of the St. Louis native’s game for his performance.
“It starts from his defensive rebounding,” Krzyzewski said. “He was very physical and so he was playing the game with a better pace, better intensity instead of more of a finesse thing. I thought what he did on the defensive end really helped him on the offensive end.”
As a whole, what the Blue Devils have done on defense has been among the biggest reasons for the team’s recent success. After allowing 83 points to the Demon Deacons (15-11, 6-8) in the teams’ earlier matchup, Duke has clamped down and played with a greater sense of urgency on the defensive end of the floor.
The Blue Devils’ improvement manifested itself in the team’s last game when it used three-quarters court pressure and strong man-to-man defense to hold the Cavaliers to a season-low 55 points and just 36.8 percent shooting from the floor. For at least one game, Duke appeared to solve its early-season troubles defending without fouling as the Blue Devils stifled much of Virginia’s dribble-penetration and committed a season-low 12 personal fouls.
Preventing the Demon Deacons from getting to the charity stripe will be a point of emphasis for the Blue Devils again Saturday after allowing Wake Forest to take 32 free-throw attempts in the January meeting. Duke will also have to find an answer for one of the ACC’s hottest players in forward John Collins, who has scored more than 20 points in nine consecutive games.
But with momentum on the Blue Devils’ side, Duke is starting to see the outlines of something special start to appear, even if the consistency is not quite where the Blue Devils want it to be.
“We didn’t have our full team until late and then when we got our full team, there were little bumps in the road just trying to figure out everything,” Tatum said. “We’re not there yet. We’re still learning. But I think we’re getting better each and every day."