COLUMBUS, OHIO—Just one day after capturing the top spot in the AP Poll, the Blue Devils saw their perfect record go awry thanks to a late rally by Ohio State.
Despite holding a 43-30 halftime lead, Duke succumbed to Zed Key, EJ Liddell and the fiercely pro-Buckeye crowd, falling 71-66 in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge. Key's 20 points were truly the deciding factor, as the 6-foot-8 forward muscled his way through Mark Williams and Theo John constantly. Add in Louisiana transfer Cedric Russell spurring a 14-1 run over the final 5:19, and you arrive at an upset win for Ohio State and the NutHouse, the Buckeye student section, storming the court.
"I thought they wore us out, I thought we were worn out," Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski said. "Part of it obviously is what they're doing against us.... They're well-coached, they're well-balanced, and we fouled so much. This is the worst that we've fouled."
With 41 seconds to go and the Blue Devils (7-1) trailing 67-66, the Buckeyes had the ball and a shot to close out the top-ranked team in America. And close it out they did, as Liddell hit a fallaway jumper and a Paolo Banchero 3-point attempt to tie clanked off the rim on the ensuing Duke possession.
Ohio State (5-2) ended up with the five-point victory after clutch free throws by Russell.
"Really within the game, it was just whatever the best look was, whoever felt like they had the open look first," junior wing Wendell Moore Jr. said on the Blue Devils' approach while trailing by three late. "Paolo got a good shot on the wing and we had chance to rebound it [but] they came down with it. Sometimes the ball falls like that."
From the start, Ohio State head coach Chris Holtmann's gameplan was clear. The Buckeyes made it a point of taking the air out of the ball with their methodical offensive sets in the early going, which should come as no surprise. Ohio State entered Tuesday ranked 257th in adjusted tempo according to KenPom.
Through the work of Key and Liddell, the Buckeyes pounded it inside early on. Once Jamari Wheeler drilled a triple from the top of the key to make it 11-7 early, the hometown crowd became deafeningly loud.
But by then, the Blue Devils had settled in, and began to flex their muscles on both ends—a trend that would define the remainder of the first half. Krzyzewski went to a 2-1-2 trapping press that shifted into man-to-man in the halfcourt, which paid off in the form of nine Ohio State turnovers in the initial frame.
Going in, so much of the attention was on the matchup of Banchero and Liddell, two of the best power forwards in the land. After a somewhat slow start for each, things started to heat up between the two just before halftime. Banchero got going on a corner three set up by great hustle by John, and on the next trip down, the Seattle native splashed a pull up from midrange to extend Duke’s lead to nine.
But the second half was an entirely different story for the potential top pick in the upcoming NBA Draft. He ended with 14 points on 4-of-14 from field—not quite matching his average of 24.5 points per game on 50% from the floor across the two preceding contests. Part of that can be chalked up to foul trouble, considering the freshman had three fouls from the latter stages of the first half on.
"He's gonna get the best of every team.... We trust him, we like him, we're not gonna bench him," Krzyzewski said with a smirk. "But it's learning for him too. You're coming against older guys; older, good, really well-coached teams. This is his eighth college game, so there's always a lot to learn.
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"If a guy has foul trouble, you're a little bit tired too [and] it has an impact on you," Krzyzewski said. "That's part of a learning experience of being a good player, being able to play with foul trouble."
Liddell, on the other hand, was on double-double watch throughout, mixing his patented array of elbow jumpers and quick attacks off the dribble all night. The junior ended with 14 points and 14 boards, serving as the Buckeyes’ co-primary source of offensive juice alongside Key.
Despite the use of that 2-1-2 look early in the first half, Krzyzewski was not done tinkering on the defensive end of the floor. The Blue Devils trotted out in a 2-3 zone for the final 1:16 before intermission, a setup that eventually resulted in a run-out for Jeremy Roach, who then found Joey Baker as the trailer for a wide-open trey. Once that dropped, Duke held a 14-point advantage as the clock winded down, and the previously raucous crowd became eerily silent.
For the night, though, Duke shot just 38.5% from the field and 28.6% from outside. Only Wendell Moore Jr., with his 17 points, eight rebounds and five dimes, provided consistency on the offensive end.
"I trust my guys, I trust them to make plays, and we weren't able to make shots tonight," Krzyzewski said on the shooting woes.
Duke goes to 19-4 in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge, and the all-time series with Ohio State is now knotted at 4-4.
After a grueling stretch of seven games in 18 days, the Blue Devils now get a two-week respite before they next take the court against South Carolina State. Gearing up for the next phase of the season will be the goal until Dec. 14.
"We have a young team, those guys are real good but they're young. And they have not gone through anything like this, so it's a period of time, I call it like an energy cycle. The season has different energy cycles, we knew that we were at the end of this one," Krzyzewski said.
Max Rego is a Trinity junior and sports managing editor for The Chronicle's 117th volume.