Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski insisted Saturday’s game against Clemson would be a test of his team’s maturity less than 48 hours after a dramatic win against No. 8 North Carolina, and midway through the second half, his team was failing.
After a breakaway dunk by Marcquise Reed punctuated a quick 9-0 run and gave the Tigers their first lead since the opening minutes, Krzyzewski leapt from his chair and shed his jacket to energize his team and a listless crowd at Cameron Indoor Stadium. The No. 18 Blue Devils responded, as sophomore Luke Kennard drilled 3-pointers on Duke’s next two possessions and his team never trailed the rest of the way in a 64-62 win.
Kennard led all scorers with 25 points—20 of them in the second half—but the Blue Devils had no other players in double figures.
Clemson had one last possession with a chance to tie or win it with six seconds left, but Kennard disrupted the play with a deflection out of bounds and senior Matt Jones contested Shelton Mitchell’s desperation 3-pointer at the buzzer that Mitchell lost as he went up to shoot.
“I didn’t want to call a timeout so he could set something up, so now you’re counting on these guys to do what the hell they’re supposed to do, and they did,” Krzyzewski said. “[Jones] is really the toughest defender we have…. We’re trying to just squeeze every little bit of toothpaste out of the tube.”
Clemson (13-11, 3-9 in the ACC) put up just 18 points in the first half, but seven straight points in the span of 90 seconds trimmed an 11-point Duke lead to 38-34 five minutes into the second half, and the Blue Devils could not stop the bleeding for several minutes. The Tigers poured in 27 points in the first 10 minutes after halftime, attacking the rim with ease and seeming to score at will against a suddenly complacent Duke defense.
However, after Reed’s dunk with 10:10 remaining, the Blue Devils (20-5, 8-4) tightened up again.
“Everybody saw Coach’s jacket come off, and when that happens, usually it’s time to pick it up,” Jones said. “The crowd got more into it and we were able to feed off that.”
Kennard followed up his two triples with a layup to give Duke a five-point lead, but after Mitchell knocked down a jumper on the ensuing possession, neither team made a shot from the field for nearly the next six minutes.
Kennard uncharacteristically missed two free throws and junior Grayson Allen missed the front end of a one-and-one during the lengthy cold stretch, as the Tigers kept fouling, giving the guards chances for redemption. Five made free throws from Kennard and two from Allen kept the Blue Devils in front by four even after Mitchell finally made a triple with 2:35 remaining.
Allen’s free throws ended a stretch in which Kennard scored 15 of his team’s points in a row as the home team went almost 11 minutes without getting a field goal from anyone else.
“[Kennard] is always hunting the ball. He’s always finding ways to get to the free throw line, to get his shot off. He’s truly been a dynamic player for us,” graduate student Amile Jefferson said. “When our spacing is good, he’s really good, because he can operate and he works off that pivot foot better than anybody in the country.”
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Jayson Tatum responded to Mitchell’s shot with a 3-pointer on the other end to keep Clemson at arm’s length, but five points for the Tigers on their next two possession trimmed the Duke lead to two once again. Clemson fouled Kennard on the Blue Devils’ next possession, though, and his two free throws helped Duke fend off the Tigers.
The Blue Devils shot well from long range for the second straight game, with Kennard, Allen, Jones and Frank Jackson each knocking down multiple triples.
After the Tigers scored in the paint on their first two possessions of the afternoon, Krzyzewski called a timeout just 1:08 into the game and his team came out of the huddle more energized, scoring five straight points to take the lead. Clemson made three of its last 25 shots from the field in the first half and went nearly eight minutes without a field goal midway through the period to help the Blue Devils extend a two-point lead to 10.
Duke took a 29-18 lead into the locker room, as the two teams combined for fewer points than the Blue Devils scored in the second half Thursday, and the Tigers’ scoring output was the lowest by a Duke opponent in a half this season.
“Especially in the first half, we were trying to beat human nature and just continue to be immersed into the ballgame and fight them,” Jones said. “To go out there and find a way to win playing less than two days ago, that’s a hard task, but we were able to conquer it.”
All-ACC forward Jaron Blossomgame had just seven points for Clemson, but the Tigers found their offense after halftime led by Mitchell’s career-high 23 points, forcing Kennard to explode yet again to extend the Blue Devils’ winning streak.
Duke will travel to Charlottesville, Va., Wednesday night for one of their toughest road games of the year at No. 12 Virginia with a chance to continue moving up the ACC standings.