BLACKSBURG, Va.—With all due respect to the likes of Kansas and Michigan State, ACC basketball is a different animal.
Friday night, it just took the Blue Devils a little bit more time to realize it.
After a close first half that was anything but pretty, No. 10 Duke was able to show one of the most promising aspects of its season thus far in a gritty win against Virginia Tech. The young Blue Devils won in a raucous, hostile Cassell Coliseum thanks to a lot of heart, proving that they can adjust to their opponents and not beat themselves.
“I was worried because we just had a big game and the travel that we might get worn out,” Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “And our kids really showed a great spirit tonight, where I know they're tired, but they didn't play tired. They played like winners tonight. And they had to because they were playing against winners.”
Virginia Tech head coach Mike Young was baffled after the game when regurgitating Stephen F. Austin’s gaudy statline against the Blue Devils two weeks ago. Duke surrendered 64 points in the paint to the Lumberjacks, and early in the first half Friday, it looked like the Hokies were heading towards a similar number.
Despite Virginia Tech scoring 30 of its first 45 points from inside, Duke was not willing to keep allowing easy looks near the basket. Thanks to a small-ball lineup and increased defensive pressure, the Blue Devils limited the Hokies to just 10 points in the paint the rest of the way.
“Just really our guards’ defense because we went small on defense for the second half,” Duke center Vernon Carey Jr. said on what the team changed defensively. “Our guards just brought the energy and I really feel like they picked it up for us.”
Just one minute after the second half began, Krzyzewski took a timeout that turned heated as he appeared to break a whiteboard while trying to spark his team. He must have finally found the secret ingredient to Duke’s success in that timeout, as the Blue Devils would pull ahead in an impressive second half effort.
“We just didn’t start the way [in the second half] that we knew we needed to,” senior captain Jack White said. “It was something we had talked about in the locker room before we came out and I felt like we really responded after that [timeout]. It was a bit of a wake up call.”
Duke's defense was critical to the win, especially on Landers Nolley II. Virginia Tech's star freshman came into the game ranked third in the ACC in scoring, yet was held to just seven points and a whopping nine turnovers. Blue Devil freshman Wendell Moore played a major role in defending Nolley, who has a similar frame to Stephen F. Austin's Kevon Harris, the man who torched the Blue Devils for 26 points.
“Just doing what I do best,” Moore said on the strategy for defending Nolley. “Coming in, keying in on guys. Our coaches made a great game plan for us defending offenses and we just executed the game plan.”
The young Duke team didn't seem to be fazed by the rowdy Hokie fans, draining all 10 of its free throw attempts. Carey led the way with four makes from the charity stripe and has now made 20 of his last 26 shots from the line, a positive sign for things to come in physical conference play.
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This isn’t new territory for the Blue Devils in an ACC opener. Last year, Duke had to pull away in the second half against Clemson in a game where freshmen struggled under the heavy weight of a conference game. R.J. Barrett and Cam Reddish combined to shoot just 6-for-21 from the field for a serious wake-up call as to how the game changes when ACC play begins.
“Different physicality out there, but also our record is 0-0,” Tre Jones said on his message to the freshmen before the game. “This is a whole new thing, and we wanted to go out there and kick off our ACC season the right way.”
From the opening tip, the crowd was loud, shots weren't falling and Virginia Tech was physical. It would have been easy to wilt under what was once a 12-point deficit, but in Cassell Coliseum Duke showed something deeper than just the number of stars next to a recruit's name.
“I feel like we were just more alive in the second half,” White said. “I felt like we were just giving up our energy and our emotions to each other… Overall, we played a lot harder than we did in the first half, a lot stronger, a bit more emotional.”
With almost two weeks until their next game and a couple nonconference games after that, this road victory will soon seem like a distant memory. However, the Blue Devils showed a resiliency and spark against the Hokies that should help come the thick of ACC play and beyond.