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Small ball lineup lifts Duke men's basketball past Virginia Tech

Freshman Paolo Banchero had a 7-0 run all by himself with 15 minutes remaining in the second half.
Freshman Paolo Banchero had a 7-0 run all by himself with 15 minutes remaining in the second half.

The Cameron Crazies packed into Cameron Indoor Stadium for an ACC contest for the first time since March 2020. The Wednesday game kicked off with a rambunctious winter break crowd, players decked out in the newly revealed "Cameron Brotherhood" jerseys and a nine-point lead for Duke—but something quickly went awry.

Section 17 looked up at the scoreboard after 20 minutes of play to see their second-ranked Blue Devils down four points following a slugfest during the first half. Hokie forward Keve Aluma made it look easy in the paint, layup-ing and dunking his way to 17 total points at the break. Duke freshman phenom Paolo Banchero struggled with a disappointing set of possessions and three turnovers in a 33 second-span. Starting center Mark Williams hadn’t notched a single point. The Blue Devils hadn’t scored in over two minutes, and faced their first halftime deficit of the 2021-22 men’s basketball season. 

The lineup of Jeremy Roach, Trevor Keels, Wendell Moore, Banchero and Williams was the proven starting unit that led the Blue Devils to their 10-1 record leading up to the matchup. The dynamic duo down low of the 6-foot-10 Banchero and 7-foot Mark Williams usually offered the strength and the length to bully nonconference teams, but on Wednesday night, a smaller version of the lineup made all the difference for Duke during the second half. The injection of freshman AJ Griffin and subsequent move of Banchero to the center spot provided the second-half scoring run the Blue Devils so desperately needed to pull out a tough win against what could be the ACC’s second best team.

Coming out of halftime, Banchero looked determined. After a rough shooting performance early, the Seattle native strung together a 7-0 run by himself to bring Duke within one point, then dished out an assist to Keels to give Duke a lead it wouldn’t relinquish for the rest of the game. 

“We tried to go with Aluma. We tried to go with [Justyn] Mutts and those two kids are hard-nosed and know what they're looking at. They’ve played a number of really good players. Paolo was better,” said Virginia Tech head coach Mike Young.

Griffin came into the fold following the first Duke basket after halftime when Krzyzewski decided that Williams’s night was over. Duke would conclude its 13-0 game-defining run with a monstrous dunk from Griffin, and led 47-42 less than six minutes after falling to an eight-point deficit. 

“[Griffin] showed, not just me but himself something tonight that he can do that. And if he doesn’t play like that, we don’t win,” said Krzyzewski.

The lineup change didn’t just provide a boost in offensive production—it better allowed the Blue Devils to limit the Virginia Tech range shooters on one of the best 3-point shooting teams in the nation. After shooting 4-of-10 on threes in the first-half, the Hokies only managed a single make from deep in nine second-half attempts against Duke’s smaller lineup, exemplifying the prioritization of putting more onus on the prolific, but at times inefficient, Aluma in the paint. 

Virginia Tech loves to get the ball in their shooter’s hands, but Duke wouldn’t let the Hokies get nearly as many open looks as they did early in the contest. 

“They do a great job bringing [Hunter] Cattoor and Nahiem Alleyne around the two screens there with the second one being a [dribble handoff], and we defended that better with that lineup,” said Krzyzewski.

The team’s last game before the break was a sweet one as the program sits at 11-1 overall. It won’t have too much time to relax, though—practice resumes Sunday, and the team travels to play Clemson Wednesday to face its next challenger in its quest for an undefeated conference season for the first time since 1998-99.

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