It is never easy to start off the conference slate against Virginia Tech and Duke’s ACC opener Wednesday night was no different.
Duke faced its toughest challenge in December at Cameron Indoor Stadium against a veteran-laden Virginia Tech squad. Donning the new Brotherhood jersey, the Blue Devils resiliently fought back against several waves of Hokie pushback to earn the 76-65 win against one of the better teams in the ACC.
“We are of course still very much a young team working,” head coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “We played a real veteran team tonight and they are going to be as good as anyone in our conference.”
At the final buzzer, the trio of Banchero, Moore Jr. and AJ Griffin combined for 54 points. Moore’s 12-point performance in the first half made the comeback possible. Banchero’s 23 points and eight rebounds, most of which came in the second half, showed why the voters had placed him as the preseason ACC Player of the Year. And Griffin finally had the statement game to show the nation that he might just be Duke’s last missing piece this season, posting 13 points on a 5-of-7 mark.
Griffin left no doubt that Duke would take the win with 10 minutes left in the contest. His powerful drive drew a foul and he managed to still find the bottom of the net and convert at the charity stripe for the extra point. Before the eruption in the stadium dimmed following that play, Moore capitalized on the fastbreak to establish the first double-digit lead of the night for the Blue Devils (11-1, 1-0 in the ACC).
That turned out to be the final nail in the coffin for the Hokies (8-5, 0-2) as the Blue Devils warded off any further comeback attempts in the final eight minutes, including a 6-0 run with just over five minutes remaining and some late-life courtesy of Justyn Mutts with over two minutes remaining.
“This was a game where I never yelled at my team,” Krzyzewski said. “I was more of a jockey on a big-time horse. And they know what [to do] tonight. They were there and they responded.”
After struggling in the first half, Banchero would not go down without a fight. Coming out of the gate after halftime, the Seattle Wash., native shook off some of the rust as he netted two layups to prevent the Hokies from running away.
“In the first half, I felt like my shot was on target. So I knew I wasn't off,” Banchero said. “I want to come out [to] have a strong second half, get into the basket and establish myself inside.”
Banchero then connected on a much-needed triple, his first of the game, to pull Duke within one point against the Hokies. A possession later, the blazing hot freshman attracted defenders before dishing out a dime to a wide-open Trevor Keels to help Duke regain the driver’s seat.
The run did not end there as Griffin soared in the air and punched home a ferocious dunk that put Duke up 47-42 at the 12:57 mark in the second half, sending the stadium into overdrive to cap off an 11-0 Duke run.
Though the game turned out in Duke’s favor, it did not look like it would in the first half.
A confident elbow trey from Keels gave Duke its first points of the game and two more nothing-but-net attempts from Wendell Moore Jr. from the money land gave the Blue Devils a 9-4 lead. Against a Hokie team that ranked ninth in the nation in terms of 3-point percentage allowed, it looked as if the Blue Devils might recapture their hot streak from the perimeter as they jumped to a quick 13-4 lead after the tipoff.
But Virginia Tech was not intimidated by Duke’s early blows.
The Hokies looked for their leaders from the start to put up points on the board. Despite getting rejected by Mark Williams in the first two minutes of the game, Keve Aluma was assertive against one of the best frontcourts in the nation, stunning the Cameron Crazies multiple times in the first half en route to 25 points and 10 rebounds on the evening.
At the 13:09 mark of the opening period, Aluma posted up Theo John and utilized a deadly turnaround towards the baseline to cap off a 9-4 Hokie run to tie the game at 13 apiece. With five minutes left in the first half and after missing a wide-open 3-point attempt, Aluma flew in from the perimeter, disregarding multiple Blue Devil rim protectors and finished the putback to help Virginia Tech jump to a 27-25 lead.
Having successfully defended Cameron against all eight visitors this season so far, the Blue Devils will cap off 2021 on the road against Clemson next Wednesday after a brief one-week break.
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