CLEMSON, S.C.—With the Blue Devils leading 57-49 and on the verge of putting away a feisty Clemson team, Wendell Carter Jr. missed a layup in the paint. Fortunately, forward Javin DeLaurier was able to tap the ball out for an extra possession, only for Carter to miss once again.
Yet again, DeLaurier was able to tap the ball out, this time leading to an open look for Gary Trent Jr. that clanked off the rim. The Blue Devils went almost four more minutes from that point on without finding the bottom of the net in what was one of the team’s most frustrating stretches of the season.
But Sunday, Duke showed a level of resolve and grit that has been missing at times this season. After withstanding a 5:35 scoreless drought and watching their 10-point lead vanish, the Blue Devils got big contributions from their freshmen late to come away with a crucial ACC road victory.
“To close out the win was huge when they came on a run and came back—we stayed together, we stayed poised, finished it out strong and Gary hit those three huge free throws there at the end,” senior Grayson Allen said. “Then, Wendell kind of sealed it for us after we get a few stops. We put together a pretty good 40-minute game.”
Duke’s eye-popping offensive numbers have been the story for most of the season, but for much of Sunday, the Blue Devils’ offense was missing. As a team, Duke shot just 38.8 percent from the floor—its lowest mark of the season—and the struggles were apparent with Clemson’s aggressive second-half defense forcing the Blue Devils to change their approach.
After Allen scored 17 of the team’s 35 first-half points, the senior was held scoreless after halftime until the waning seconds of the game. But Duke’s captain did not resort to forcing shots and playing out of the flow of the offense. Instead, Allen moved to the wing—with freshman Trevon Duval moving to the top of the key—and helped facilitate the Blue Devil offense by feeding entry passes to the team’s bigs.
Carter—who had just two points and did not hit a shot from the floor in the first 20 minutes—stepped up in the second-half and finished with 15 points and 10 rebounds. Similar to the win against Virginia Tech, Carter went from looking flummoxed at the outset to controlling the game after halftime. In both cases, Duke’s ability to make in-game adjustments highlights a skill that could prove valuable come tournament time.
“Wendell really learned a lot today because it was a man’s game inside that first half,” Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “It was really physical, and as a young player, you get more worn out, and you can get knocked back. Grayson talking to him and our guys showing confidence in him—not just us, but the guys on the team, I thought he responded.”
On the other end of the floor, the Blue Devils excelled in a way that didn’t seem possible early in the year. Instead of letting its shooting slump pave the path for a Tigers comeback, Duke bunkered down on the defensive end and continued to show promise with a zone scheme that has helped the Blue Devils hold consecutive ACC opponents to fewer than 60 points for the first time since 2015.
Allen and Duval have become a formidable duo at the top of the zone—with each recording four steals in the win—and have used their ability to put pressure on the ball and prevent dribble penetration. The reintroduction of DeLaurier into the rotation has also been a boost for Duke with the sophomore’s ability to stay in front of quicker players on the perimeter, but also use his size to battle with bigger players down low.
Add in the ability of Carter and sophomore Marques Bolden to stand tall near the basket, and you get a unit capable of matching up with the most talented teams in the country.
“We’re playing our zone very well, and we end up talking better in our zone than in man,” Krzyzewski said. “They were able to communicate where [Gabe Devoe and Marcquise Reed] were, and then we reacted fairly well.”
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With their biggest star out of the lineup, the Blue Devils have resorted to doing the little things and making different adjustments instead of relying on Marvin Bagley III’s transcendent talent. That’s not to say that Duke is all of a sudden better without its freshman big. But the result has been a group that looks a lot more cohesive on the court and has taken to being more emotional in huddles and in the locker room.
“That’s three wins without arguably as talented a kid as there is in the country out, and he’s coming along, so hopefully it’ll be soon,” Krzyzewski said. “It has given opportunities for Marques, Javin, Jack—Jack White did a good job for us today—that normally they wouldn’t have. For Javin to play 30 minutes in a game and start in late February, that’s invaluable experience as we go forward.”
As the regular season winds down, the Blue Devils have slowly formed a new identity that could certainly use a centerpiece of Bagley’s caliber to carry them in March.