CLEMSON, S.C.—Since the start of conference play, the road has been unkind to Duke. With the exception of a win at Miami in mid-January, the Blue Devils had yet to earn themselves a meaningful victory away from Durham.
Sunday afternoon at Littlejohn Coliseum, that trend came to an end.
Behind a magnificent defensive performance and a stellar first-half effort from senior guard Grayson Allen, No. 12 Duke edged out No. 11 Clemson 66-57, moving into sole possession of the second spot in the ACC standings after closing the game with a tiebreaking 9-0 run in the final two minutes. Allen finished with 19 points, but did not score in the second half until sinking a pair of free throws in the final minute.
“If not the biggest [win of the season], it’s right there because coming to play in this environment against a team that doesn’t lose at home, it was a very physical game,” Allen said. “You never know what’s going to happen in the tournament. You never know where you’re going to be playing, you don’t know what kind of draw you’re going to get, so we have to be ready to play in any environment…. We proved a lot today.”
As the Blue Devils made life difficult on offense for the hosts, Duke struggled to find the rim on the other end. After a Gary Trent Jr. triple brought the Blue Devil advantage to 10 with just more than seven minutes to play, Duke went scoreless for 5:35, as the Tigers chipped away despite 15 combined missed field goals in a row between the two sides.
With an and-one lay-in from guard Marcquise Reed just before the under-four media timeout, the Blue Devil lead stood at only five points.
From there, as the Duke drought continued, Gabe DeVoe drained a 3-pointer from the corner, bringing the Clemson crowd to its feet as the Blue Devils called timeout with their lead down to just a pair at 57-55. A David Skara layup then tied the contest with less than two minutes to play.
But after Trent was fouled right in front of the Duke bench with just 91 seconds remaining, the freshman coolly drilled all three at the charity stripe to put the Blue Devils back in front for good.
“We got that 10-point lead, we had a couple good looks and were not able to knock them down,” head coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “They stayed in with it, which you expect them to do, and then all of a sudden, it’s a tie game.
“Then our kids responded. Gary’s three free throws were huge. I think both teams were tired at the end. We’re really tired, and to play those last two minutes like that with a young group—some of these young guys, they grew up a little bit more today.”
With the shot clock about to expire on the next possession, freshman Wendell Carter Jr. spun for a strong layup to push the lead to five and seal the deal.
“Sometimes he’s his own worst critic where he gets down on himself and gets mad about his own play, but he stuck with it today,” Allen said of the first-year big man. “He missed a few early in the game that he normally makes and I told him we were coming right back to him, and we did…. For him to go up strong with the whole crowd cheering against him and finish that was a big play for a freshman.”
Following a quiet first half, Carter went to work right out of the break, scoring nine of Duke's first 11 points as the Blue Devils (22-5, 10-4 in the ACC) worked their way into the lead by a half-dozen.
But with Duke going scoreless for nearly three minutes, Clemson clawed its way back with Reed knocking down a triple to force the Blue Devils into a timeout up just 46-45 a little more than midway through the half.
The visitors would not stay silent for long, though. Allen found big man Marques Bolden inside for a clutch and-one layup after the timeout, sparking a 5-0 run as the Duke zone continued to clamp down on the Tigers—Clemson shot just 8-of-33 from the field after halftime, struggling to find any type of offense.
“When we run the zone the right way, it’s really hard for people to score on us,” freshman Trevon Duval said. "Even teams that can really shoot can’t shoot against our zone. They can’t really drive against it when we play it the right way.”
In the early minutes of the contest, neither team found much of an offensive rhythm. As Duke forced Clemson (20-6, 9-5) into deliberate possessions and several heavily-contested triples, the Blue Devils struggled to even find a shot from the field—seven of Duke's first 10 points came at the charity stripe.
After nearly seven minutes of trading baskets, the Blue Devils finally found a run, getting seven straight points from Allen to snatch just their second lead of the afternoon at 28-25 as Tiger head coach Brad Brownell had to call timeout.
The advantage did not last long, however, as the teams combined for 5-of-17 shooting to bring the first half to a close with Duke clinging to a one-point advantage at 35-34.
Even with the Blue Devils out of sync offensively much of the afternoon, it was a gritty team effort that carried Duke to arguably its most critical victory of the year.
“We’re becoming a team. We’re coming together. You have to be together to win a game like this,” Allen said. “We’re sharing emotion a lot better than we did earlier. There’s a lot of times where someone would get an and-one and someone would be like, ‘That’s pretty cool.’ But now, we’re getting fired up for each other, yelling and screaming for each other, and a win like this just brings us closer together.”
The Blue Devils now return home for a Wednesday night matchup with Louisville as they will close their regular-season slate with three home contests and a trip to Virginia Tech in a span of 10 days, looking to secure a double-bye for the ACC tournament in Brooklyn.
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A junior from just outside Philadelphia, Mitchell is probably reminding you how the Eagles won the Super Bowl this year and that the Phillies are definitely on the rebound. Outside of The Chronicle, he majors in Economics, minors in Statistics and is working toward the PJMS certificate, in addition to playing trombone in the Duke University Marching Band. And if you're getting him a sandwich with beef and cheese outside the state of Pennsylvania, you best not call it a "Philly cheesesteak."