COLUMBUS, OHIO—The Blue Devils had played close games this season—they powered past Kentucky by eight in their season opener and they squeaked past Gonzaga by three just days ago. But neither of those were true road games—this one was. And boy, did it feel like one.
“We put together a very ambitious schedule,” said Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski. “You start out with Kentucky, and you have Gonzaga and you have Ohio State, and you have five pretty good teams in between in a 22-day period. And that’s a lot. We have a young team—those guys are real good, but they’re young. And they have not gone through anything like this.”
After a year of road games with never more than a few thousand in attendance during the 2020-21 season, this one in Columbus, Ohio against Ohio State may have come as a bit of a shock to the system for the Blue Devils, who fell 71-66 in their first game as the No. 1-ranked team.
The team’s last true road game came back in February 2020, when it played—and lost—at Virginia in front of 14,000 fans and, just like tonight, did it as a ranked team falling to an unranked one. But the difference between that game and this one? About 4,000 more raucous fans, as Ohio State's Schottenstein Center had a sellout crowd for this matchup, totaling just under 19,000 in the arena.
And, unlike any of Duke’s games to date, the vast majority of the crowd was rooting against it, a 180-degree turn from the strong Blue Devil fan presence in Las Vegas against Gonzaga.
Despite a slow start to the first half, as the team was finding their legs in enemy territory, it looked like the Blue Devils’ senior leadership would be able to carry them through this one. A layup by senior captain Joey Baker in the first half started a 6-0 Duke run and a steal, minutes later, also by Baker, led to a bucket from graduate student Theo John that would secure the Blue Devils the lead until nearly the very end.
Duke went into the locker room up 13, leaving the arena considerably quieter than it had found it.
But the game was truly a tale of two halves.
Crowds are a funny thing—as players do well, the fans cheer. When players don’t perform, they seem to shrink. And the crowd only helps or hurts as much as teams let it. But it’s when players' legs get tired that crowds seem to take on other-worldly powers, scoffing at the rules of logic—they’ll either give that extra push or, in the case of the road team, they’ll slowly chip away at the squad's spirit.
Buoyed on by an Ohio State team that just wouldn’t go away and a Duke team that couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn for much of the second half, the Buckeye faithful willed their team to a win. Duke’s star freshman Paolo Banchero put up seven shots in the latter period—not a single one fell. One Duke player fouled out and four others ended the night with four fouls. The Blue Devils ended the second period with more fouls than field goals, and just 23 points.
“I think the main message is we got to learn from it,” Moore said about what the team can take away from this game. “We got a two-week break here, so we need to get refreshed, get guys back healthy—just hit the ground running again. Things like this happen sometimes early in the season. We can’t be down about it, it’s not the end of the world—it’s just one game. We got many more games to go; just keep building, just keep learning from it.”
With each miss, each foul and each Buckeye bucket on the other end of the court, the Ohio State crowd followed the way of their team’s score, only going up, both in spirit and decibel level.
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As the buzzer sounded on Duke’s undefeated season and the Ohio State students quickly took over the court, the Blue Devil faithful could take this loss in two ways. Either chalk Tuesday's game up to a poor second half of execution and poise or, as social media is apt to do, write the it has been overrated from the beginning.
That would be a mistake.
This is still the team that took down Gonzaga and Kentucky—it just has a little bit more work to do before it reaches its potential.
“In order to win big, you have to be able to win multiple big games in a row,” Krzyzewski said. “If this was the NCAA—[if] you win on a Friday, you have to win on Sunday. So we were not able to do that, so that’s how we will talk about this. In the NCAA, you’re gonna win on a big game on a Thursday or Friday—how can you come back?”
It’s only December—trophies aren’t handed out until March.