NEW YORK—A return to the Big Apple and another opportunity to play in the legendary Madison Square Garden was not enough to ignite the Blue Devils from tipoff, as they struggled to score the basket in a lethargic start to the game.
But as the game progressed, No. 1 Duke’s overbearing talent proved too much for the Golden Bears, as the Blue Devils pulled away slowly but surely to stay alive in the 2K Empire Classic.
“Our guys played good defense tonight,” head coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “What I thought would happen is happening…. We’re getting better and we’re close.”
Behind a game-high and career-high 31 points from freshman Vernon Carey Jr., Duke easily put away California 87-52 in the semifinal of the 2K Empire Classic Thursday night. However, Duke’s rout of California does not tell the full story, as for the first 10 minutes of the game, the Blue Devils appeared to play down to their competition, at least on the offensive side, but Carey would not let his team stay flat.
Carey embodied his 'Tank' nickname in his second-ever game at Madison Square Garden, knocking down everyone his path and taking no prisoners. The Southwest Ranches, Fla., native could not be stopped in the paint, dunking everything he could and allowing no easy buckets on the defensive side of the ball. His four blocks and 12 rebounds left California's bigs confused on how to slow down the Madison Square Garden mega giant.
“Staying aggressive really on both ends...not just one end,” Carey said about his dominant performance. “My team got me going from the beginning. They gave me energy from the get-go.”
An uninformed observer would not be able to guess that an unranked team faced off against the top-ranked squad in the nation based on the beginning of the matchup. Both teams went cold early from the field, as they only scored a combined 16 points almost 10 minutes into the game. Duke’s offense looked discombobulated, as its most reliable shooters, Alex O’Connell and Matthew Hurt, could not get it going from deep, hitting zero 3-pointers on four attempts between the two of them in that span.
“It will click,” freshman guard Cassius Stanley said about Duke’s shooting woes. “I don't think we’re doing it that well, but we’re shooting it confidently, honestly. That’s all we can do.”
Luckily for the Blue Devils (5-0), its suffocating defense hindered California (4-1) from faring much better, as the Golden Bears did not hit a 3-pointer until the 14-minute mark. And as Duke finally found its groove on the offensive side of the ball, California faltered, scoring just 21 points in the first half and shooting 18-for-51 from the field on the game.
Though Carey kept the team afloat during its subpar offensive first half, scoring more than half of the team’s points with two blocks and seven rebounds, it was sophomore captain Tre Jones who helped spark and maintain Duke’s relentless scoring run. His pinpoint passes opened lanes for his teammates and allowed them time to get going. Jones finished with seven assists and eight points, and for a guy with a reputation of anything but a sharpshooter, his two made shots from beyond the arc were enough to keep California guards on high alert from the perimeter.
After a poor performance against Georgia State, Stanley bounced back against the Golden Bears, hitting two crucial 3-pointers during Duke’s scoring downpour. As always, Stanley was active on the defensive side as well, finishing with a steal and a block to help keep California’s guards at bay.
Duke continued to abuse the Golden Bears in the paint, out-rebounding California 50-28 overall, to extend its lead in the second half. California’s workhorse Matt Bradley scored just seven points, which made it nearly impossible for his squad to make it a competitive game.
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"The defense has gotten better as we move along," Krzyzewski said. "It has to keep getting better."
The Blue Devils will return to Madison Square Garden Friday night at 7 p.m. to face Georgetown for the 2K Empire Classic championship. If Duke can repeat its dominant performance against the Hoyas, the team should be in good shape to return to Durham with a first place trophy.