There’s still plenty of basketball left to be played this season, but this felt a lot like a must-win game for head coach Mike Krzyzewski and his Blue Devils.
In danger of picking up its first four-game losing streak since 2007 and first losing record since 1999, Duke was in desperate need of a victory. Luckily for the Blue Devils, they got just what they wanted Tuesday night in Cameron Indoor Stadium, as Duke downed a pesky Georgia Tech team 75-68.
"We all wanted this win. We needed this win," freshman forward Jalen Johnson said.
Each team traded blows throughout the evening, but the end of the second half turned into the Johnson and Jose Alvarado show. After a quiet first half, Johnson came alive late and finished with 17 points, six rebounds and three steals. Meanwhile, Alvarado was the motor for the Yellow Jackets all night, finishing with a game-high 26 points and three steals.
With the score even at 68 with 1:20 left, Johnson hit one of two from the line to give Duke (6-5, 4-3 in the ACC) a 69-68 lead. Ultimately, Alvarado could not lead his team to a win, as he committed a crucial turnover on the following possession and could not corral an offensive rebound with 31 seconds left. A Jordan Goldwire offensive rebound with 15 seconds left all but sealed the Blue Devil victory.
"Jalen's a great player," Goldwire said. "He just took the reads and made the smart plays. When he's attacking the rim like that...it's big for us and we appreciate it."
Coming off of a 10-0 run to end the first half, Duke stayed on fire, as a Johnson dunk and Matthew Hurt 3-pointer extended Duke’s lead to 38-27 just over a minute into the second period. But the Yellow Jackets would not go down quietly, as a subsequent 7-0 run of their own kept them within striking distance.
The Blue Devils would maintain a narrow lead until a fastbreak layup from Georgia Tech’s Jordan Usher knotted the score at 52 with 9:27 left.
Despite a quiet game to that point, Johnson took over for Duke following the Usher bucket. The Milwaukee native converted inside on consecutive possessions to give the Blue Devils a 56-52 advantage. But once again, Duke could not put Georgia Tech (7-5, 3-3) away, as the visiting team would tie the score at 56 thanks to an Alvarado steal and lay-in.
The start of the contest was sluggish to say the least. Each team failed to surpass a measly 40 percent from the field in the first half, as Duke and Georgia Tech made 39.4 and 32.3 percent of their shots over the first 20 minutes, respectively.
The only Blue Devil that seemed energized in the opening minutes was the senior Goldwire, who scored seven quick points. At one point, Goldwire grabbed consecutive offensive rebounds before converting a putback, not something you would expect out of a 6-foot-2 point guard.
"I'm just gonna come out and play," Goldwire said. "I know my team still relies on me, I know I'm still...a leader on the team, so I just got to come out and play, get my team energy and tell them what to do."
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As it so often does, Goldwire’s tenacity seemed to jolt the rest of the Blue Devils awake, with freshman DJ Steward taking the reins from his senior teammate as the first half drew to a close. Steward scored the last eight points of the period, including a pair of deep 3-pointers, willing his squad to a 33-25 lead as it headed to the locker room.
Johnson played limited minutes in the first half thanks to two quick fouls, continuing a recurring and concerning trend for him. In Johnson's absence, towering freshman center Mark Williams tallied six points and three rebounds in eight minutes of first-half action, eventually finishing with six points and six boards in 13 total minutes.
"Mark, he needed this, this was big for him," Johnson said. "We are proud of him. We all knew he could do it, and he finally got to show the rest of the world that he can do it as well."
Duke was simply the more physical team Tuesday night, out-rebounding Georgia Tech 43-28 and out-scoring the Yellow Jackets 36-32 in the paint.
The Blue Devils will get another chance to prove themselves Saturday night as Clemson will travel to Durham for a 12 p.m. tilt in Cameron Indoor Stadium.