BLACKSBURG, Va.—The identity of this Blue Devil team remained a mystery Monday night, with a past strength turning into its biggest weakness down the stretch at Virginia Tech.
No. 5 Duke entered the season as an offensive juggernaut, but it went silent in the final minutes, falling 64-63 after Chris Clarke converted a putback with less than five seconds left at Cassell Coliseum to snap the Blue Devils' five-game winning streak. Clarke scored Virginia Tech's last six points in the victory, taking advantage of three Duke turnovers in the final two minutes.
The Blue Devils led 60-51 with 5:50 left in the game, but the Hokies stormed back, cutting the lead to one with 49 seconds left with a Clarke layup. After Duke got away with an ugly turnover when Clarke missed a contested fast-break layup, point guard Trevon Duval once again struggled to convert in the clutch from the line. With a chance to extend the Blue Devils' lead to three, Duval missed the front end of a one-and-one to give the Hokies their last chance.
“We had our opportunities,” Duke head coach Mike Kryzyewski said. “A couple of the losses that we’ve had, we’ve missed one-and-ones. I’m not blaming Trevon, but you’ve got to hit them. Those are winning plays, so it’s a tough loss for us. We’re a tired basketball team. We’ve got to get rejuvenated and move forward because we’ve been playing really good ball.”
The Blue Devils' shooting woes from the perimeter continued Monday coming off a dismal 2-for-18 outing against the Orange. Duke (24-6, 12-5 in the ACC) converted just 28.6 percent of its three-point attempts Monday and 40.7 percent of its overall shot attempts. Most notably, the team’s best 3-point shooters, Gary Trent Jr. and Grayson Allen, were unable to take the lid off the basket. The two combined to shoot a dismal 5-of-22 from the perimeter, forcing the Blue Devils to look elsewhere for offensive production.
With Marvin Bagley III and Wendell Carter Jr. struggling, Allen took it upon himself, scoring nine second-half points including a pair of clutch triples to help Duke extend the lead to nine with less than six minutes left. The Blue Devils did not make a field goal for the last 7:02 in the contest.
“We got a lot of looks on the outside there that we should’ve knocked down,” Allen said. “That makes offense even tougher, especially against a team who’s going to give you those looks and really pack it in on the inside and make it tough for you to get the ball to the bigs.”
Duke has been riding its defense of late. The Blue Devils entered Monday’s contest holding each of their previous four opponents to fewer than 60 points, and they went big from the onset, replacing Duval in the starting lineup with sophomore Javin DeLaurier in order to maintain that intensity. The change also gave the Blue Devils three starters 6-foot-10 or taller against a team with just one rotation player taller than 6-foot-6. Yet Duke failed to play to its advantage in the first half in a slow-paced game.
“Part of it for us was to make them a halfcourt team, and we did unless we turned the ball over,” Krzyzewski said. “That’s one of their strengths. They can really move it down the court, because Justin [Robinson] can take it down as fast as possible and then Clarke is such a unique player where he can also do that. And then they’ve got shooters, so when they get going in transition like that, it’s why they’ve won 20-something games."
The Blue Devils came out firing, as 19 of their 32 first-half looks came from beyond the arc. Allen looked like the man we saw without Bagley on the court in the early going, scoring 11 of the team’s first 16 points Monday. A pair of triples by the senior captain sparked an early 19-3 run for Duke, which stormed out to an early 29-14 lead with nine minutes left to play in the first half.
But the Blue Devils' recent offensive inconsistency caught up with them. Duke struggled to close the half, allowing the Hokies to respond with a 11-0 run of their own led by 12 first-half points from freshman Nickeil Alexander-Walker. Duke took a 33-27 lead into the locker room.
"We let them back in the game," senior Grayson Allen said. "They got the crowd on their side obviously, and that gives them a lot of life and a lot of energy. You can’t give a team like that life, and you let them stay in the game—that’s what happens. They make big plays, hustle plays, energy plays, and that’s what wins the game for them."
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A triple by the Hokies’ Justin Robinson cut Duke's advantage to just three 15 seconds into the second half, the smallest the lead had been since 13-11.
After Allen hit his first jumper since the 13:15 mark in the first half after the break, Carter and Bagley got involved with back-to-back layups, which stretched the Duke lead back to seven at 41-34. The two had been quiet before that point, combining for just nine points in the first half after scoring 35 of the Blue Devils' 60 against Syracuse Saturday.
But the two never got going. Bagley and Carter finished the game with just 17 points, and Bagley was unproductive in the second half due to foul trouble.
“We’re not going to worry about this anymore,” Bagley said. “We’re going to go on the plane and go home, get a nice sleep and wake up tomorrow. UNC is what we’re thinking about. It’s a tough loss, you never want to lose like that, and you never want to lose period. You’ve got to have a short memory and move on.”
Duke will close the regular season against No. 9 North Carolina at Cameron Indoor Stadium Saturday night in Grayson Allen’s final home game. The Blue Devils could have clinched a top-three finish in the ACC standings with a win Monday, but can now lock up a double bye in next week's conference tournament as soon as Tuesday if North Carolina beats Miami.