TALLAHASSEE, FLA.—As the clock approached four minutes remaining in Tuesday night’s game and Duke guard Jeremy Roach dribbled the ball at the top of the arc, Florida State appeared to have the win in hand. The Blue Devils, down eight points and struggling to string together quality offensive possessions, were watching their hopes of a road win diminish with each and every tick.
But moments later, Roach dished to a wide-open Paolo Banchero on the wing for a crucial 3-pointer, cutting the home team’s lead to five and igniting the game’s mind-bending, breakneck final sequence in the flash of an eye. Approximately nine minutes and eight lead changes later, the final buzzer sounded in overtime with the Seminoles on the right side of the see-saw 79-78.
To many, those final nine minutes and 12 seconds tell the story of how Duke nearly snatched an improbable win against a formidable opponent in thrilling fashion. The part that’s more telling, though, is comprised of everything that came before.
“I think the only way you learn is through experience. You can’t replicate that in a practice session, because you’re not going to play against anybody that good in a practice session,” head coach Mike Krzyzewski said after the game. “So that’s part of the growth process, we’ve got a lot of young guys.”
In the wake of Tuesday night’s overtime loss in Tallahassee, Fla., it is crucial to recognize the moments and trends that led the Blue Devils to face such long odds so late in the game. Against a very good and athletic Florida State squad, many of the issues Duke has faced all year were put under a microscope: defensive rebounding concerns, stagnant half-court offense, turnovers and an alarmingly-wide disparity in shot attempts all jumped off of the stat sheet early on.
Against an admittedly-weaker ACC this season, Duke’s shortcomings in these areas have often gone unpunished. In Saturday’s win against N.C. State, the Blue Devils allowed a season-high 22 offensive rebounds, yet still won with ease. In all but one of January’s games, some combination of rebounding and turnover woes have forced Duke to take significantly fewer shots than its opponent.
Even then, more often than not, Duke has come out on top. But the Seminoles, like the Hurricanes and Buckeyes before them, provided a staunch challenge that forced Duke to face a tough truth: the Blue Devils, talented as they are, still have plenty of room to grow, and Florida State helped to show them where.
“Especially at the start of the second half, we gave up multiple offensive rebounds, and that could’ve knocked us out for the rest of the game,” said Krzyzewski. “It didn’t, but a lot of those rebounds came during those first four minutes of the first half and the first four minutes of the second half.”
"It's something that we're working on, that we have to get better in,” Krzyzewski added.
The Blue Devils yielded 19 offensive rebounds and coughed the ball up 15 times throughout the loss, but perhaps the most puzzling stretch of the game was early in the second half, as Duke’s offense went missing and the Seminoles quickly surged ahead. With just one second-half field goal in the first nine-plus minutes, Duke looked lost in its halfcourt sets and perplexed by the opposition’s aggressive defense.
An important feature of that stretch, however, was the disappearance of Banchero on the offensive side of the ball. The star freshman and reigning ACC Freshman of the Week didn’t register a field goal attempt until that all-important 3-pointer, but the moment the Blue Devils put the ball in his hands, the majority of their troubles on offense disappeared into thin air—Banchero essentially carried his team to the extra period, scoring or assisting on every Duke make from that moment until the end of regulation.
“I thought their defense dominated our offense,” said Krzyzewski. “During the [stretch run], I thought Jeremy Roach really played one of his best games and was really strong with the ball, and so was Paolo [Banchero]. We were just much stronger with the ball during that time period and made really good plays as a result of it.”
That stretch run proved to be too little, too late for Duke this time, but only in comparison to the rest of the game can one fully appreciate how the Blue Devils clawed their way back into contention at the very last moment. Through sudden ball-security—Duke had just one meaningful turnover in the last 15 minutes—and Banchero’s offensive command, the Blue Devils not only wound up with multiple chances to steal a win, but gave the rest of us a glimpse at what they can be should they patch up in the places they need to most.
In spite of everything, Duke’s performance was almost enough. That serves as a testament to the heights that these Blue Devils are capable of reaching, but also as a clear sign that they need to improve to get there. Yes, Krzyzewski’s final Duke team remains well-equipped to contend for the ACC crown, but until that growth takes place, a conference championship in Durham is not quite the inevitability so many have already claimed it to be.
“You’d definitely much rather go through the bumps now than come March or April where it’s one game left. For us to go through it now is, again, just a learning experience,” said junior captain Wendell Moore Jr. “We have a lot of young guys on our team, a lot of guys who haven’t even played ACC basketball—this is their first time in the ACC.”
Luckily for the Blue Devils, conference play is only just getting started, and they will get another chance for a win Saturday against Syracuse at Cameron Indoor Stadium, possibly without the services of freshman guard Trevor Keels, who left Tuesday’s game with a calf injury.
“So, we’ve just got to keep learning and keep getting better,” Moore said. “And that starts tomorrow because we’ve got a big one on Saturday.”
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Jonathan Levitan is a Trinity junior and sports editor of The Chronicle's 118th volume.