NEW YORK—Once again, it looked like the Blue Devils had put away a gritty Clemson team about midway through the second half.
And once again, the Tigers showed fight to claw their way back into the game.
But for the second time this season, sophomore Luke Kennard would not let Duke fall after coughing up a big lead.
The sophomore's floater with 2:35 remaining put fifth-seeded Duke up by three following a Clemson 7-0 run, then another big shot with 1:14 left extended the lead to five as the Blue Devils knocked off the No. 12 seed Tigers 79-72 Wednesday afternoon at the Barclays Center.
Duke looked like it had the ACC tournament second round matchup well in hand following a 20-4 run spanning the end of the first half and start of the second period, but needed more clutch plays from Kennard to avoid the upset.
Despite starting the game 1-of-9 from the field in the first half, Kennard shot 8-of-11 after halftime to finish with 20 points. His strong finish was set up by rookies Frank Jackson and Jayson Tatum, who put the team on top by 13 with 8:28 left with their decisive drives inside and also had 20 points apiece.
“Luke was cold early in the game, but we never have any doubt. We’ve always got the utmost confidence in him that he’s going to hit big shots,” Tatum said. “For the guys like me and Frank and everybody else, when some of the veterans are not hitting shots and things like that, we’ve got to pull our weight until they get rolling, and that’s what we did today.”
After Jackson missed a pair of free throws with the team up five and 42 seconds remaining, Tatum calmly sank a pair to restore the two-possession lead seven seconds later. Another stop and two more foul shots from the rookie sealed the hard-fought win.
But although Jackson and Tatum were the ones who responded when the No. 14 Blue Devils (24-8) found themselves trailing 33-29 late in the first half and Tatum made the clinching free throws, it was Kennard who delivered in winning time.
His first clutch bucket came after a few fakes to get his defender off balance in the right mid-post area and came in response to a Marcquise Reed and-one that had cut the lead to a single point. The second came from the left baseline, with the ACC’s only unanimous first-team All-ACC performer determined not to let the rematch with Clemson come down to the final possession like the Feb. 11 regular-season meeting. In that contest, Kennard scored 15 straight Duke points at one point in a 64-62 victory.
Going back to the 6:48 mark Wednesday, Kennard scored his team’s last four baskets of the contest.
“That’s a heck of a performance when [for] a player, it isn’t going, and then it goes,” Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “That shows you’re a different player—you’re a special player when you’re able to do that.”
The Franklin, Ohio, native’s heroics came after the Blue Devils had let the Tigers (17-15) whittle the lead down, occasionally losing track of Shelton Mitchell and Jaron Blossomgame—who combined for 36 points—a few times and going cold offensively.
As Duke relied on its starters to essentially play the entire second half, Clemson got meaningful contributions from reserves Reed and Elijah Thomas, who scored all of the points in the 7-0 run that quickly brought the Tigers roaring back.
The Blue Devils did not have enough depth and balance to put Clemson away earlier, and after not having their primary pieces healthy until late in the season, are trying to carve out an identity in the postseason.
“We're just trying to win and doing it that way,” Krzyzewski said. “Really, we have to get seven or eight guys there. I'd like to see more from either Harry [Giles], Marques [Bolden] or Antonio [Vrankovic]. And if we can get Grayson [Allen] to be Grayson, that's how we're going to get better because it puts a lot of pressure on another team having so many guys out there that can score.”
Allen had another rough afternoon, finishing 0-of-4 in 12 minutes and picking up two over-the-back fouls and a technical foul for slamming the ball down in frustration in the first half to let the Tigers take their first lead.
After the Blue Devils opened the game with a 9-3 burst by forcing three turnovers, Duke missed some wide open shots and saw four players pick up at least two fouls to let Clemson find its offense at the charity stripe. Allen’s fouls in quick succession let the Tigers get into the bonus, and they took a 33-29 lead late in the half by making 16-of-18 free throws in the period.
“I just need to play better—it’s simple,” Allen said of his recent low-minute totals, adding that his ankle injury is getting better. “They got to the foul line a lot, that’s deflating for a defense. That’s our fault too, we’ve got to quit fouling. I think we held them to 30-something percent shooting in the first half, so really it was giving up the free throws—I think we were frustrated at that.”
Luckily for Duke, Tatum and Jackson responded like veterans, tying the game with two quick buckets before halftime then building off that energy to start the second half. The Blue Devils were more disciplined after halftime, committing just seven fouls and holding on with Kennard’s clutch shot-making.
Duke will now have a chance to earn a quality win in the ACC tournament quarterfinals Thursday at 2 p.m. against fourth-seeded Louisville. The Cardinals knocked off the Blue Devils 78-69 in January with graduate student Amile Jefferson out with a right-foot bone bruise and Krzyzewski out after lower-back surgery.
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