For the first 10 minutes of the play, Duke looked like it was a team gunning for a national championship.
Grayson Allen started the fire early for the Blue Devils by making back-to-back 3-pointers. Marvin Bagley III controlled the paint with six rebounds and six points down low before the break. Even Duke’s bench got in on the action, with a banked triple from Jack White midway through the half.
Cut to the last 10 minutes of play, and the Blue Devils looked like a team defeated. Costly turnovers, bricked free throws and a nonexistent presence in the paint all resulted in Duke heading home searching for answers entering its final game of the regular season.
“Our defense is better when we score, and our defensive lapses come when we don’t score the ball,” Allen said. “We’re not scoring as much because we’re playing against teams that have scouted us the first couple games of the year, when nobody had seen half of our team play because we’re all young. Now we’re close to 30 games in, so teams have a lot of scouting on us and they know how to defend us, so we have to adjust to that.”
In a role reversal for the Blue Devils, they failed to find offensive contributions from any members of their highly-touted freshman class down the stretch.
Gary Trent Jr. failed to score in the second half of the contest, instead contributing a turnover despite playing the entire second 20 minutes. Wendell Carter Jr. didn’t fare much better, making just one layup off two shots from the field inside the paint. And aside from missing the front end of a one-and-one with Duke clinging to a one-point lead in the final 30 seconds of regulation, Trevon Duval notched just four points and two turnovers in the second half.
Even Allen, who made up the backbone of Duke’s offense with 22 points, struggled mightily to handle the ball, committing four of his six turnovers in the second half. The Hokies were more than happy to pick up on the mistakes the Blue Devils’ lone senior left on the court, scoring 18 points off turnovers in the final 20 minutes alone.
“That’s the thing I was most worried about today, just the energy, and we didn’t have it,” Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “You could tell because we were irritable. We’re asking for calls and stuff like that. When you’re really fresh and you’re on top of it—and these kids have played, this is our 30th game. They’ve won a lot of games, so we didn’t play like we have been playing, acting like we normally act.”
The Blue Devils’ live-ball turnovers played right into forward Chris Clarke’s hands. He steamrolled down the floor and eviscerated Duke in the paint, cruising through Carter and Bagley and meeting little resistance on a few of his drives. Back-to-back turnovers by Allen gave Clarke—who scored his team’s last six points—the chance to light up Cassell Coliseum, and Trent got away with what could have been a costly turnover when Clarke missed a layup a possession before his game-winning putback.
“[Clarke] is a playmaker,” Allen said. “He’s not just an energy guy. He plays very hard, but the thing he does best is make plays and get other guys involved. When you’re expecting him to pass, that’s when he goes in and drives or he makes a great play like that to be on the offensive boards that wins the game for them.”
The way Duke played in the final seven minutes is exactly the type of game that could doom the Blue Devils in the postseason. Despite touting the No. 2 offense in the nation on KenPom.com, the Blue Devils scored just five points in the last seven minutes of play—all of them coming from the free-throw line, and none coming from Bagley or Carter. The duo did not get many touches at all in the paint down the stretch.
Meanwhile, the Hokies poured in 15 points in the same span, with four in transition and eight coming just under the basket.
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Staring down the barrel of the postseason less than two weeks away, Duke needs to execute better on offense to hold late leads with a vice grip. If not, all the talent in the world won’t save the Blue Devils from a very, very short month come March.
“We’ve just got to get rejuvenated,” Krzyzewski said. “We’re a good basketball team. We didn’t play as well tonight, so the main thing to fix is getting rejuvenated. This isn’t some, ‘Now we have this problem or that problem.’ It’s part of the season. It’s a long season.”