In the opening minutes of the season, No. 9 Duke looked as lifeless as the tarp of fans who silently cheered the team on from the sidelines. Ten minutes into the game, the Blue Devils were tied at 17, and they couldn’t buy a bucket.
Then, Duke remembered it was playing Coppin State.
Freshman forward Jalen Johnson pushed Duke past a lackluster opening and a second-half slump to beat Coppin State 81-71 Saturday afternoon at Cameron Indoor Stadium. Johnson started off strong and finished with a superb stat line of 19 points, 19 rebounds and four blocks. Johnson’s 15 defensive rebounds are a Duke freshman single-game record.
"That's a heck of a first-time performance for anybody, but especially a freshman," head coach Mike Krzyzewski said. "I can't remember when we had a guy with 19 rebounds."
Sweet-shooting freshman DJ Steward played strong off the bench, scoring 24 points, two of them off of a crafty reverse layup. The only other freshman to get significant minutes was Jeremy Roach, who dished out four assists.
"DJ can really score the ball," sophomore forward Wendell Moore Jr. said. "He really showed that tonight, being open in the right spot at all times, being ready to shoot the ball. And you know, Jalen—that’s just Jalen being him."
In a surprise move, Krzyzewski opted to give junior guard Joey Baker the start over Roach. Despite hauling in the third-best recruiting class in the country, Coach K started only one freshman—Johnson—alongside Baker, Moore, senior Jordan Goldwire and sophomore Matthew Hurt.
It didn’t seem to matter who was on the floor as long as Johnson was in the game early on, though. Just in the first half, Johnson had 15 points and 11 rebounds, shot a perfect 6-for-6 from the field and stuffed two Eagle attempts at the rim.
"I didn't really have any expectations other than to just go out there and be myself," Johnson said. "You see what happened when I was just myself. I just let the game come to me and whatever happens, happens."
As much as this was a coming-out party for Johnson and Steward, the victory also exposed the Blue Devils’ weaknesses. Coppin State grabbed eight offensive rebounds in the first half alone, in part because Duke’s 7-footer, Mark Williams, only played four minutes in the game. Graduate transfer Patrick Tapé, at 6-foot-9, never saw the floor.
"They put five guards out there," Krzyzewski said. "Mark and Patrick will play, and they're good players. But in today's game…. If you don't adjust and go small, then they're going to have a better chance of beating you."
Duke (1-0) shot just 4-for-10 from the charity stripe, keeping the game closer than it should have been. The Blue Devils also committed 22 turnovers, allowing Coppin State (0-1) to come within six points of Duke with just eight minutes left.
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"I don't know if there were some jitters or whatever," Krzyzewski said. "Hopefully, we won’t turn the darn thing over."
Hurt started the game shooting just 1-for-5 but ended the game strong, finishing with 12 points and seven boards. Goldwire scored just two points while committing three turnovers, while Moore tallied 13 points but committed three turnovers and four fouls.
"I think I didn't do as good a job as I could tonight," Moore said.
Saturday's matinee had shades of last year's preseason opener, a nail-biter against Division II champs Northwest Missouri State. If last season foreshadowed this one at all, though, major improvement is on the horizon.
Duke will have little time to rest before its next matchup, however, matching up against No. 13 Michigan State this coming Tuesday.