Cassell Coliseum is notorious for rattling young Duke teams, with the Blue Devils entering Tuesday night's contest having lost three of their last four games in the usually deafening arena.
Even with the crowd size greatly reduced due to COVID-19 restrictions, Duke still succumbed to defeat at the hands of the Hokies, allowing Virginia Tech to pretty much do whatever it wanted from start to finish.
Freshman point guard Jeremy Roach’s 22 points and a strong second half from Matthew Hurt were not enough to save the 19th-ranked Blue Devils from a heartbreaking 74-67 loss to No. 20 Virginia Tech Tuesday in Blacksburg, Va. Redshirt sophomore guard Tyrece Radford led the Hokies with 18 points on 7-of-12 shooting, but was far from the only one who seemed infallible against Duke’s defense—Virginia Tech shot 50% from the field as a team, making shots from all over the floor.
“We weren’t really playing with much energy,” Roach said. “We were just playing lax. We were letting them come into us…. We weren’t able to be the aggressor.”
A series of three outstanding offensive plays by Hurt got Duke (5-3, 3-1 in the ACC) right back in the game in the second half after falling behind by as many as 18 in the opening period. First, Hurt hit a one-legged step back three, followed by a fadeaway from the low post. Another Hurt three on the next possession then brought Duke within one point of the Hokies.
Overall, Hurt finished with 20 points and 11 rebounds.
Joey Baker's defensive contribution off the bench was no small part of Duke's comeback, either. The junior forward finished with three blocks and countless dives to the hardwood in attempts to win 50-50 balls.
Just when it seemed like Duke would finally break through and take the lead, however, two really bad misses from deep by Jordan Goldwire and Wendell Moore Jr. allowed Virginia Tech (10-2, 4-1) enough time to stabilize its lead. The Blue Devils didn’t go away, as DJ Steward hit a couple of tough transition layups to keep it close. But as the time diminished, so too did Duke’s chances of making a successful comeback.
“We were getting good looks, we just gotta make the open shots,” Roach said. “Obviously in the second half we made our run, but just playing for 40 minutes is the big key for us.”
Duke had no answer early for the Hokies, as Virginia Tech jumped out to an early 11-2 advantage thanks to multiple unforced turnovers and a couple of unwise shot decisions from the Blue Devils, allowing the Hokies to generate easy transition opportunities.
The Blue Devils committed nine turnovers in the first half, which accounted for 13 of the Hokies’ 46 first-half points. Virginia Tech didn’t need Duke’s turnovers to score, though. Halfway through the first half, the Hokies were shooting a blistering 76.2 percent from the field, exposing the usually sound Duke defense.
Despite Virginia Tech continually pounding the paint, leading to 36 points near the rim overall, 7-foot rim protector Mark Williams played just two minutes.
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An abysmal first half offensively and defensively was salvaged by some aggressive iso plays by Roach and fellow freshman Jameyn Brakefield, who earned his first starting nod of the season. Brakefield ended with just four points, but scored at momentum-shifting moments, making his scores that much more important. His input just wasn’t enough to make up for Duke’s poor defensive play, however.
Duke came out swinging in the second half, reducing Virginia Tech’s lead to just single digits off more connected defensive sets and a much more aggressive approach to attacking the rim on the other end of the floor. The Blue Devil offense found life with Hurt demanding the ball in the post, and Steward finding somewhat of a hot hand from deep. Head coach Mike Krzyzewski clearly emphasized defense in the halftime locker room, as the Blue Devils reduced their mistakes on that end of the floor as well, forcing the Hokies to work for their buckets in the second half.
What came as a surprise to most, freshman Jalen Johnson came in off the bench, playing in his first minutes since December. Johnson was cleared to play, and while it initially seemed like he'd sit this game out and return next Tuesday at Pittsburgh, Krzyzewski didn’t hesitate to add Johnson into the mix when Duke found issues scoring in the first half. Some technical difficulties on the press conference Zoom made it difficult to understand exactly what Roach was trying to say, but even he admitted to being slightly caught off guard when Johnson entered the game.
“I wish we had amazing plans, we’re trying to learn,” Krzyzewski said when he learned that Roach was surprised to see Johnson inserted into the game. “You try different things out.... We knew that Jalen could play, although he’s only practiced once. I thought putting him in early was just to see how it would go.”
Johnson had minimal impact, though, scoring two points in four minutes. However, it is a good sign that the freshman still looked spry and healthy.
Duke will get a week of rest and travel to Pittsburgh to hopefully play head coach Jeff Capel’s squad for the first time since the two teams' last matchup was postponed due to COVID-19 complications.