The ending to No. 1 Duke’s 85-83 loss to Stephen F. Austin Tuesday night was nothing short of catastrophic.
Prior to this game, the Blue Devils had gone 150 games without losing to a nonconference challenger in Cameron Indoor Stadium and the Lumberjacks were among the least likely candidates to break this streak, finishing last season with a 7-11 record in the Southland conference and ranking outside of the top 200 in KenPom.com's ratings. Yet somehow Stephen F. Austin outplayed the No. 1 team in the country on its home court.
“They played with great poise,” said Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski. “We weren’t deserving of winning. [Stephen F. Austin] was deserving of winning, and they won.”
The Lumberjacks may have deserved the win, but just how could a historic upset like this happen?
For one, turnovers were a huge problem. Stephen F. Austin came to Durham as the top-ranked team in the nation in turnovers forced per game, and they came out with no intention to budge from this position.
The on-ball pressure, active hands and quick feet of the Lumberjacks forced the Blue Devils into 22 turnovers. This started with four in the first minutes of play, and seemed to ease off for a bit before the mistakes by Duke amplified in volume in the second half and overtime.
Until this matchup, Duke had not run into a team that played anything like itself in this sense—the Blue Devils are used to being the on-ball bullies, forcing teams into errors—but Tuesday, they played the role of victim. Mixed into this issue is the theme of pace—Stephen F. Austin now ranks 12th in the nation in adjusted tempo. Stated more simply, this means that the Lumberjacks play fast. In overtime alone, they took eight shots to the Blue Devils’ four.
“A key factor in the ballgame was to be strong with the ball, and we were not strong with the ball,” said Krzyzewski. “That’s really the easiest answer.”
Free throws were also an issue. Duke was 24-for-40 on the night from the charity stripe, but, more crucially, only 11-for-24 in the second half. It sagged from a questionable mark in the first half to an atrocious, abysmal, horrifying, you pick your adjective, disaster as the game progressed.
This cannot become a theme for the Blue Devils, a team that relies upon paint presence and banging bodies down low—especially from bruising center Vernon Carey Jr.—to win games. Stephen F. Austin found this fault, and in the second half, the Lumberjacks exploited it. Carey was 4-for-11 from the line, which tempers excitement for his efficient 8-of-10 mark from the field.
Any analysis of Tuesday's contest would be remiss to not mention the show that Stephen F. Austin's Kevon Harris put on under the lights of Cameron Indoor Stadium. The senior dropped 26 points on the night in a hostile environment, including 20 in the first half alone. He played 40 of the 45 minutes of game time, and added four assists along with three steals—and, crucially, only three turnovers.
Blue Devil fans will wake up Wednesday likely still disappointed about this result. But what it will instill in the minds of the young core of this team is the knowledge that on any given Tuesday, a team that has had Duke circled on its calendars since its season ended in the spring can walk into Cameron and come out with a win.
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“Every single night we have to play with the same hunger and the same toughness, no matter who we are playing,” said Blue Devil sophomore point guard Tre Jones. “We have to know that everyone is coming for us.”
And though Duke faces a likely drop in the AP poll following the loss, the calendar dates will remain circled for its opponents.