LAHAINA, Hawaii—As weird as it is to say for a team that never gave up a lead in a top-10 slugfest, the Blue Devils faced the most adversity they have faced to this point in the season Tuesday.
With its big-three freshmen all having a less than stellar game and some miscues from its role players, Duke found itself unable to effectively string together big plays to fully put Auburn away down the stretch. And with the Tigers' Jared Harper and Bryce Brown slicing through the Blue Devils' perimeter defense to pick away at Duke's lead in the waning moments of the game, the Blue Devils had to respond with a degree of poise not required of the young squad thus far in the season to come out with a win.
"It's the season," Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski said. "You look at our league we're going to be in a lot of games. We're going to get beat. You can get beat and play well. And [Auburn] would be an outstanding team in any league. And a lot of these kids won the SEC regular season last year and I can see why."
Duke's problems with closing out the game were visible from the first half, where the Blue Devils' star freshmen Zion Williamson and R.J. Barrett had surprisingly lackluster starts.
For a player whose unprecedented size and athleticism should allow him to feast on Auburn's undersized front court, Williamson struggled to find a rhythm against the Tiger defense in the paint. The Spartanburg, S.C., native managed only made one field goal in the first half and committed two turnovers and two fouls, play uncharacteristic of one of Duke's key offensive motors. To make matters worse for the Blue Devils, Barrett found himself trending on the sloppy side as well. Although the lone Canadian Blue Devil finished the afternoon with 18 points, Barrett also committed four turnovers and made only seven of 20 shots from the field.
Duke's game against Auburn proved to be one of the Blue Devils' sloppiest, shooting just 28.0 percent from three and committing 13 turnovers. However, despite the problems Duke faced on the floor, the Blue Devils can take solace in the fact that when the pressure is on, every member of Krzyzewski's squad refuses to crack.
It started with a career performance from junior Marques Bolden. When the Tigers' Harper and Austin Wiley drove lanes to the basket, Bolden was there with lockdown defense at the post to keep Auburn at bay. The DeSoto, Texas, native shook off a quiet start to the second half and turned into a bulwark in the paint, helping the Blue Devils maintain their tenuous lead.
Junior captain Jack White, who despite only scoring one point in the second half, found a key rebound followed by a massive block with just minutes left to play to pull the Tigers' momentum out from under them. White remained sound in mind through 24 minutes of play and avoided making a single turnover, crucially preventing an opportunistic Auburn squad from cutting too far into Duke's lead.
"I feel like we handled it really well," freshman point guard Tre Jones said of handling the pressure. "We go through those situations all the time in practice. The coaches prepare us for situations like this. I feel like we handled the adversity and were able to make the plays to win the game."
And as always, the Blue Devils were also able to rely on Jones to be the steady floor general they need when the going gets tough. Despite shouldering the monumental task of playing nearly a full 40 minutes, Jones only committed one turnover and contributed six assists and 10 points. More importantly, the Duke point guard was able to put just enough pressure on Harper and Brown to prevent the Tigers' strongest offensive weapons from finding a rhythm.
"He's a really good player like coach said," Jones said of Harper. "The coaches gave us a great game plan against both of those guards, what to do. And I knew that my teammates had my back no matter how I guarded him. So I felt like we did a pretty good job and just did what we had to do to get the win."
Duke should take its game against Auburn as a warning. The rest of the season—especially through conference play—will not be easy, and the Blue Devils cannot solely rely on their pure talent alone to come out on top. Instead, Duke will need to show the grit it had in the second half of this afternoon to stay ahead when the chips aren't falling in its favor.
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