NEW YORK—Heading into Tuesday night's contest between Duke and Kansas, much was made about Udoka Azubuike, the Jayhawk Goliath, and how his experience and size would overpower the young Blue Devil forwards.
But in an early season grudge match in the Big Apple, Duke came to play, using grit to make up for its lack of size.
Despite going down by as much as nine to begin the second half, the Blue Devils outlasted, outwitted and outplayed their opponent to overcome a rough offensive night.
“I think we found our identity—hard-nosed, rough [and] tough,” Duke freshman Cassius Stanley said. “It might be ugly, but we’re going to get the dub. We’re going to be very, very, very aggressive.”
Stanley’s words rang true especially for fellow freshmen Vernon Carey Jr. and Matthew Hurt, who were tasked with slowing Azubuike. Carey in particular moved his feet well and forced Azubuike to do more with the ball than just bully his way to the bucket. The Jayhawk center turned over the ball four times over the course of the game, as Duke’s double teams forced Azubuike into bad passes and frequent travels.
The 7-footer only scored eight points, a testament to both Carey’s presence in the paint and Azubuike's inability to stay out of foul trouble himself on the other end.
Carey, who ended up with 11 points and six rebounds, set the tone down low, continually trying to back down his opponents, even when size was not in his favor. The “tank,” as Duke senior captain Javin DeLaurier calls him, played somewhat of an unsung hero role for the Blue Devils, as his box score did not fully display his impact on the game.
“[Carey] wasn’t afraid of the moment at all. Vernon wasn’t scared,” DeLaurier said. “[He] got the ball and went right at him and got his team the win. What more can you ask for than that?”
Carey’s bruiser mentality rubbed off on the rest of the team, but maybe not in the traditional sense. Hurt buckled down and went at his defenders the best way he knew how, with finesse. The Rochester, Minn., native put up Duke's first five points, utilizing a spin-around jumper from the elbow. While he wasn’t the strongest forward on the court, his offensive skills were unmatched, as his ability to shoot from deep and shimmy his way into an open pull-up jumper kept Kansas’ bigs on their toes.
“The confidence that my teammates and coaches have in me to keep shooting really helped me,” Hurt said. “I thought it was a good win and we’re gonna go back pretty happy.”
Despite not having the best percentage from the field—Hurt only shot a 4-of-12 clip—his makes were crucial to Duke’s nitty gritty win. One of his 3-pointers gave the Blue Devils the lead down the stretch, helping regain momentum after a Kansas and-one.
To round out the trio of banging bigs, senior forward Jack White also provided a spark and a fight to help Duke come away with the win. After knocking down a 3-pointer to help end the Blue Devil scoring drought in the beginning of the second half, White came up with a game-saving steal on the baseline to help close out the game once Duke had the lead. The Australian also received quality time with Azubuike down low once Carey earned a third foul.
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“[White] actually played better when he got hit in the mouth,” said Blue Devil head coach Mike Krzyzewski. “I thought he got angry.”
Getting back up after getting punched in the mouth seemed to be a theme for Duke in its season opener. Time and time again, the Blue Devils found themselves down, but played hard to find that one shot or force that one turnover that would inevitably help them get back into the game to win. The battle of the bigs ended up in Duke’s favor this time around, but Krzyzewski didn’t seemed too surprised by the results.
“They have really practiced hard,” Krzyzewski said. “These kids put it in, they did what they were supposed to do…. Overall, we were able to stay fairly fresh defensively. And that’s gonna have to be a key for our basketball team.”