CLEMSON, S.C.—For its prior seven games, Duke treated its fans to a study in defensive prowess.
Dating back to Dec. 6, only three of Duke’s opponents had managed more than 60 points—and none more than 64 points—against the No. 4 team in KenPom’s defensive efficiency rankings. And most recently, the Blue Devils had forced Wake Forest to commit 17 turnovers in their lopsided win Saturday night in Durham.
All streaks must come to an end, however, and this seven-game run was no different.
Clemson breezed past 65 points on the strength of an unusually prolific 3-point shooting night and a ferocious offensive strategy driven through the Tigers’ standout bigs, Aamir Simms and Tevin Mack. Thanks to a 79-point night on a 56.6 percent clip from the field, Clemson toppled the mighty Blue Devils, handing No. 3 Duke its first ACC loss in impressive fashion in Littlejohn Coliseum Tuesday night.
“We knew coming into the game that the four and the five were the positions that we had to defend. In our last game, we didn’t do a good job at the four and the five and we didn’t do a good job tonight,” head coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “Simms and Mack were terrific. It’s a different offense to defend but [they were] simply spectacular tonight.”
As he did against North Carolina last Saturday, Simms proved to be invaluable for the Tigers, especially on the offensive end of the floor. He finished with a game-high 25 points and nine rebounds and thoroughly impressed Krzyzewski. Mack, his counterpart in the post, added 22 points himself and matched Simms with nine rebounds.
Simms and Mack each were also part of the 3-point barrage that helped put Clemson ahead in the first half. The Tigers made five of their first seven attempts from beyond the arc in the first half to help key a run to put Clemson up five at the half. Simms and Mack each finished with two triples, as did teammates Hunter Tyson and John Newman III, to round out a balanced attack from deep for Clemson. Entering Tuesday’s game, the Tigers were shooting just over 30 percent from downtown, and the Blue Devils had allowed opponents to shoot below 30 percent from deep. But despite cooling off a bit in the second half, Clemson still shot 42.1 percent from deep against the Blue Devils.
The ability of Simms and Mack to step out was vital for the rest of the Tigers offense to click, as Vernon Carey Jr. and Javin DeLaurier were forced out of the lane to guard their men on the perimeter. As a result, Duke couldn’t command the paint on defense as it normally does, getting outscored in the lane 38-34.
“You have to give credit to Simms and Mack tonight. They were extremely good. Extremely good,” Krzyzewski said.
Making Duke’s task on defense all the more difficult against the Tigers was the fact that a handful of Blue Devils were in foul trouble in the second half, most notably Cassius Stanley, who picked up his fourth foul with more than 16 minutes to go in the game. The freshman guard was forced to play a more limited game from that point forward.
“Honestly it feels like me getting four fouls is the whole reason we lost the game. I take responsibility for that,” Stanley said. “I could have done some better things. It’s tough to play with four, it was tough to watch from the bench. I tried to do my best to cheer everybody on.”
In addition to Joey Baker and Wendell Moore Jr., both of whom missed the game with injuries, Duke also seemed to largely be missing another player, Matthew Hurt, who played only 15 minutes as he struggled to slow down Clemson’s forwards.
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The defensive struggles might have gone unnoticed were it not for the errors on the other end of the floor, where turnovers and missed free throws continued to be a thorn in Duke’s side. The Blue Devils have struggled all year from the free throw line, and Tuesday’s 10-for-20 performance did nothing to instill confidence in their ability to convert from the charity stripe. Duke was able to cut down on its turnovers in the second half, but had to play from behind due to its mistakes with the ball in the first period.
Saturday, the Blue Devils will have their hands full with another versatile forward, Jordan Nwora, as No. 11 Louisville will visit Durham for a highly anticipated matchup. To avoid dropping their second conference game in a row, Duke will need to be more effective against Nwora than it was against Simms and Mack, cutting back on the small mistakes that let Tuesday’s game slip away.