RALEIGH—Duke played like a desperate team Saturday afternoon, and for good reason.
If they wanted any chance to turn around their nightmarish 2020–21 season and avoid their first four-game losing streak in 14 years, the Blue Devils needed to start with a statement win against N.C. State.
Duke made no mistake in declaring its intentions in PNC Arena: it was there to dominate. The Blue Devils overwhelmed their in-state foe from start to finish, and an impressive 22-3 run in the middle of the first half all but sealed the Wolfpack’s fate, as Duke cruised to an 69-53 victory.
Nearly everyone in blue and white got in on the fun in the blowout, but it was sophomore forward Matthew Hurt who led the way once again, finishing with a game-high 24 points on 8-of-10 shooting from the floor and 6-of-7 from beyond the arc. The Minnesota native continues to bolster his resume for ACC Player of the Year, hoping to become the fourth straight Blue Devil to take home the honor.
”He was quick and he got his shot off quick, and he had a heck of a game,” head coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “With a lower scoring game, to get 24 points, 6-for-7 from three.... Matt had a great game today.”
Hurt knocked down two 3-pointers in the game’s first three minutes to get things going for the Blue Devils, who wouldn't pump the breaks for the entire first half en route to a 39-21 lead entering the intermission.
N.C. State’s 21 points in the first half marked a season-low for a Duke opponent in any half, as the Blue Devils’ hounding defense forced the Wolfpack into 13 turnovers and zero made 3-pointers over the first 20 minutes.
”We’ve been working in the last few days on our defense—pretty much that’s all we‘ve been working on,” Krzyzewski said. “And we played really good defense tonight. By working on our defense, we also got to be more physical and, in the first half, our defense was outstanding.”
With 10 minutes remaining in the opening period, Wendell Moore Jr. took the ball the length of the floor off a steal and finished with a pretty reverse lay-in on the other end to put Duke up 25-10, emblematic of the Blue Devils' superior energy.
Duke (8-8, 6-6 in the ACC) kept N.C. State (8-9, 4-8) at arm’s length for the second half as well, with the final 16-point difference the closest the Wolfpack would get the rest of the way.
Moore and freshman center Mark Williams spearheaded Duke’s stifling defense, as Moore finished with a game-high three steals and Williams a game-high five blocks.
“He gives me a lot of confidence,” Hurt said of playing alongside Williams. “His shot-blocking presence has really helped our team and me individually. I’m very comfortable playing with him...and he’s only going to get better.”
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Noticeably absent for much of Duke’s win was Jalen Johnson. The freshman forward’s fall from grace has been swift, as he was out of the starting lineup for the third straight game. In the eight minutes Johnson did receive Saturday, he only mustered three points.
Saturday marked the first time that many Blue Devils' families were able to see them play in person, as PNC Arena allows a limited number of players' guests at the game. Just down the road in Durham at Cameron Indoor Stadium, no spectators are allowed, and the emotional impact of having families in attendance was clear, especially postgame when players migrated to the Duke fan section to talk to their families.
"You guys don’t realize how tough that is, especially for young players, where their families can’t see them," Krzyzewski said. "We have no fans at our place. I’m not against Duke for doing that. Who knows—that might have helped.”
The Blue Devils’ .500 record is ugly, but there's reason to think Saturday’s result is a ray of hope for the team’s fortunes the rest of the season. Then again, the convincing win makes you wonder: Where has this team been all year? This is the same group that couldn’t take care of business against the likes of Pittsburgh, Miami and Notre Dame over the last month.
”They could have come in here [feeling] down, you’re under .500...but they have not done that,” Krzyzewski said of his players. “They’ve really worked hard and been enthusiastic, upbeat.
”We just have to keep doing that, don’t pay attention to anyone else...and something good will happen. Something good will happen.... You just got to stay with it, man, that’s what our program’s done and see what happens if you do that.”
If the Blue Devils want to make a late push for the NCAA tournament, they will need to prove they are the dominant force they looked like Saturday and not the middling team that they’ve looked like for most of the season. The next stop on Duke’s ACC redemption tour will be Wednesday night at 8:30 p.m. against Wake Forest in Winston-Salem, N.C.