Duke is always due for some slow starts during the relatively easy portion of its nonconference schedule, with Thursday night being no exception.
The Blue Devils traded leads with Appalachian State throughout much of the first half, with the contest looking like it could easily become one to put on upset watch.
But we’ve also seen how quickly these Blue Devils can break out of a mid-game slump, and that’s exactly what they did.
Wendell Moore Jr. three. Mark Williams breakaway dunk. Williams block into oblivion. Moore breakaway one-handed flush.
That 51-second sequence is all it took for Duke to transform a slim 34-33 edge to a 41-33 advantage with three minutes to go in the first half, with the Blue Devils eventually stretching that lead to 50-37 by the end of the half and never looking back.
No. 2 Duke took down the Mountaineers 92-67, thanks to—in what has become the norm with this year’s squad—strong performances across the board. However, it was Wendell Moore Jr. who led the way, especially in the second period. The junior forward finished with 21 points, six assists and only two turnovers, with his consistent play across the season slowly putting himself into the Wooden Award conversation.
"He's been our stud.... He's having right now an All-American year," head coach Mike Krzyzewski said. "He's played as well as anybody. And he's been a leader."
Meanwhile, AJ Griffin notched 11 points in 19 minutes of action as he slowly attempts to earn playing time ahead of ACC play, while Paolo Banchero added 16 points and six rebounds and Mark Williams contributed six blocks and two steals on his 20th birthday.
Lastly, Theo John played 13 minutes following his one-game absence due to back tightness, providing an efficient six points and a strong presence on the defensive end. However, he did show signs that his back tightness had returned during some moments, at one point standing on the sideline for several minutes before taking his seat after being taken out of the game in the first half.
Despite Duke’s strong end to the opening half, Appalachian State came out fighting after the break, cutting the Blue Devils’ edge to five at the 16:18 mark. But the Blue Devils (9-1) just have a way of picking the perfect time for a momentum-swinging sequence. Griffin, Jeremy Roach and Moore promptly knocked down back-to-back-to-back treys, pushing the Duke lead back to double-digits and forcing the Mountaineers to call timeout. Appalachian State (6-6) never again got back within single digits.
"When it got down to five, [the Mountaineers] had the momentum of the game, and we responded," Krzyzewski said. "We have good players, and they're really competitive guys. They're not gonna be afraid, and they just put a string—boom, boom, boom. But we did it because we played defense, and we got a run, and it wasn't from a set offense. When we play like that, it's really neat. It's really beautiful basketball, and I love it."
The Blue Devils finished 15-of-30 from downtown in the contest, just two days removed from their impressive 15-of-27 performance from deep against South Carolina State. Duke struggled mightily in that department through the first several weeks of the season, but seems to have turned a corner after final exams.
"We shoot a lot at practice, we work on it, we're all confident in our shot, so we're not really surprised by this," Banchero said. "We kinda expected this. We've had some rough shooting games, but we don't let that affect us. We're gonna let it fly."
There remain concerns, however, with the Blue Devils’ struggles during the first 20 minutes Thursday.
For one, Appalachian State out-rebounded the Blue Devils 18-17 in the opening period—and eventually won the rebounding battle 31-30—continuing what has become a theme for the Blue Devils after they entered the contest ranked 152nd in the country in rebound margin.
"The thing that we're not doing is rebounding defensively," Krzyzewski said. "And when we rebound defensively, that's what leads to our fast break more so than a turnover because we have four ball-handlers.... Part of it is sometimes we're going too early or we anticipate someone else getting the ball, and we're going this way instead of hands ready for the rebound."
Furthermore, Duke just couldn’t stop Michael Almonacy in the opening 20 minutes. The graduate student guard dropped 17 points in the first 11 minutes of the game, the most points by an opposing player in the first half against the Blue Devils this season (and in case you don’t remember, Duke played against both Drew Timme and Chet Holmgren just a few weeks ago).
The Blue Devils did hold Almonacy to zero points over the remaining 29 minutes of the contest, however, proving yet again just how dominant this team’s defense can be when playing at its best.
"Jeremy [Roach] did a great job on Almonacy in the second half—he took pride in guarding him on defense and shutting him down," Moore said.
Duke hosts one more nonconference matchup before ACC season begins, taking on Loyola Maryland Saturday at 4 p.m.
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