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Loss at Virginia Tech provides learning experience for shorthanded Duke men's basketball

Tuesday's game against Virginia Tech was certainly not Duke's prettiest game in recent memory.
Tuesday's game against Virginia Tech was certainly not Duke's prettiest game in recent memory.

Comeback stories are awfully nice. They’re one of the hallmarks of college basketball, and they’re a trope known well by Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski.

Then there are stories like the one the Blue Devils wrote Tuesday. Duke stormed back against Virginia Tech to trim an 18-point deficit to just one. From there, everything fell apart. 

Chalk it up to character development.

“We had opportunities,” Krzyzewski said. “Our guys came back and put us in a position to win, and we could not knock down a shot, man.”

The best that could be said about Duke’s unraveling Tuesday night was that Coach K’s young guns got a taste of a real ACC contender. With 13 minutes left in Blacksburg, Va., the game looked to be for the Blue Devils’ taking. Duke had just gone on a huge run and trailed the Hokies by one point.

The good only lasted for so long. From that point on, the Blue Devils shot 5-for-23 from the field, including 2-of-14 from beyond the arc. When Coach K needed buckets most, his players could not convert.

Duke had certainly done itself no favors in the first half. The 20th-ranked Hokies shot 63% from the field in the opening period, ballooning a lead that the 19th-ranked Blue Devils could never quite catch up to.

“We gave them the opportunity to shoot a high percentage,” Krzyzewski said. “We were an accomplice to their good offense.”

There were a few silver linings to Tuesday’s loss. Freshman point guard Jeremy Roach had the best offensive performance of his short college career, posting 22 points. Meanwhile, Matthew Hurt continued his hot streak, scoring 20 points and grabbing 11 rebounds en route to his fourth career double-double.

Even junior Joey Baker earned himself a note in the stat sheet, recording a career-high three blocks in 13 minutes.

And everybody loves a returning character. Although freshman forward Jalen Johnson’s role in Tuesday’s loss was minimal—he played just four minutes—Duke fans were happy to see him back on the court after he had been sidelined since mid-December with a foot injury.

“[Johnson] wasn’t ready for that game,” Krzyzewski said. “Hopefully, in a week, he’ll be ready for our next game.”

Johnson’s status was a game-time decision, and his sudden appearance took even his own teammates off guard.

“Personally, it was a surprise for me,” Roach said. “I’m not going to lie.”

Johnson's limited minutes weren't the only reason Duke entered Tuesday's game shorthanded. Fellow freshman Henry Coleman III and assistant coach Chris Carrawell didn't travel with the team due to illness, though both have consistently tested negative for COVID-19. Graduate transfer forward Patrick Tapé also remained out while continuing to recover from a back injury.

When Johnson—a potential lottery pick—returns in a more meaningful role, Duke figures to be a totally different team. His absence, however, presented an opportunity for his teammates to do what many Duke students do best: learn.

“We’re still finding out about our team,” Krzyzewski said. “We had not played in an ACC game like that... You don’t get better without experience.”

Tonight may not have been the feel-good comeback story the Blue Devils had hoped for. But the great thing about college basketball is there's usually a sequel. While Duke won’t take on Virginia Tech again in the regular season, the squad has a shot at redemption against Pittsburgh next Tuesday.

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