NEW YORK—The bright lights of Madison Square Garden did not seem to faze a young Duke squad Thursday.
Despite a sluggish start, an energetic second-half performance from the Blue Devils proved to be enough for No. 2 Duke to pull out a 69-58 victory against No. 12 Texas Tech Thursday night. Double-digit scoring performances from Zion Williamson, R.J. Barrett and Tre Jones powered the Blue Devils to their 11th victory of the season in their final action of 2018.
"The toughness of a win like this—you can only coach them in practice up to a certain point," head coach Mike Krzyzewski said. "Experience is the key factor, and we don’t have experience, so a lot of this game is not for me X’s and O’s.
"It’s psychological. We start out, we’re up 8-0 and we’re boom, and these kids, when they go boom, they think they go boom boom boom, and then all of a sudden they forgot the game plan and they started driving the ball without moving the defense, and we scored like three points. So now they go from this extreme to here.... Now what do we do?"
With 11 minutes remaining, a Jack White 3-pointer evened the score at 45, Duke’s first make from outside of the contest. Consecutive inside buckets from Barrett gave the Blue Devils a 49-46 lead with under nine minutes remaining, an advantage that Duke (11-1) relinquished just a few minutes later on a Jarrett Culver 3-pointer.
Another White 3-pointer in the corner off an assist from Jones gave the Blue Devils a 56-55 lead with six minutes left, a lead that Duke would not lose this time around. After a charge on Williamson sent the star forward to the bench with five fouls with nearly four minutes still on the clock, the Blue Devils still managed to hold on, in large part to a dagger shot from Cam Reddish from the corner—his first bucket from the field all night.
"Jack just made some big plays for us—the three from the corner when we just couldn’t hit a shot. We did miss some shots that we normally make, but he hit a big one and then his defense and what he did down the stretch," Krzyzewski said. "I’m so happy because his mother is here from Australia and his sister, and for them to see him in this atmosphere was beautiful. Actually I gave her a high five after [he] did one of [his] really good things."
At the outset of the contest, Duke seemed poised to run away with a victory. A ferocious Williamson rejection as the shot clock expired on Texas Tech’s first offensive possession set the table, and the Blue Devils capitalized on numerous opportunities in transition to jump out to an 8-0 lead, causing a timeout from Red Raider head coach Chris Beard just three minutes into the game.
However, Duke’s luck seemed to expire coming out of the timeout, and Texas Tech (10-1) quickly stormed back to tie the game at 10 behind seven points from Culver, who ended with a game-high 25.
Offensive inefficiency for Duke as a whole carried into the second half, especially for Reddish and Barrett, who combined for 24 points on a putrid 27.5 percent from the field. As a team, the Blue Devils finished at just 38.3 percent from the field and 15.0 percent from long distance. Additionally, the team’s season-long struggles from the free-throw line plagued the Blue Devils in the first half, as they went just 4-for-7 from the charity stripe.
"We’re never down. We knew that shots weren’t falling and it was tough for us, but we knew that it wasn’t going to be an easy game," Barrett said. "They’re a very good defensive team, and Tre and Zion really picked us up the whole night."
With an ineffective Barrett and Reddish, the spectacular defense of point guard Jones kept Duke competitive for much of the contest, and the freshman’s ballhawking ability resulted in a season-high six steals. The Apple Valley, Minn., native’s takeaways resulted in various offensive opportunities for the Blue Devils, and Duke scored 29 of its 69 points on a fast break, including a Jones steal that resulted in a highlight alley-oop to Zion Williamson with eight minutes remaining in the first half.
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In the first half, the Red Raiders’ strong defense gave Duke fits, and the Blue Devils struggled to find the basket in half-court sets. Duke did not connect on any of its 10 first-half 3-point attempts, and R.J. Barrett hit just three of his 14 first-half field-goal attempts.
Barrett was not the only Blue Devil freshman who struggled to start the game, as Reddish utterly disappeared in the opening period. Reddish had six turnovers and did not score in the first half, and finished with just eight points, continuing his recent offensive slump.
"Every kid’s in a different growth process," Krzyzewski said. "[Reddish] has not been shooting the ball well and it’s gotten him down, and it’s affected other things on how he plays, and tonight it did, too."
Duke now has an unusually long holiday break with more than two weeks off before opening ACC play back home against Clemson on Jan. 5.