WINSTON-SALEM, N.C.—Past matchups in this building have featured Duke needing some last gasp heroics from the likes of Chris Duhon and Luke Kennard to escape with a win. Not this time.
Showcasing a new starting lineup and thanks in large part to Paolo Banchero entering a zone not seen since his 20-point first half against Gonzaga, the Blue Devils—led by acting head coach Jon Scheyer, who was filling in for head coach Mike Krzyzewski—left LJVM Coliseum with a 76-64 victory over Wake Forest.
"This win was big for us, not just because we won but the way that we played as a team," junior Wendell Moore Jr. said. "This game was just so fun to play as a team, kinda how we played in the beginning of the season. It was a lot of fun, guys sharing the ball, lot of guys smiling, you're not even knowing who's scoring, you just know that Duke's scoring."
Staring at a two-point deficit with seconds ticking away in the opening half, Duke (13-2, 3-1 in the ACC) was in the midst of what appeared to be another sluggish conference performance. But a Wendell Moore baseline drive, along with consecutive threes by Trevor Keels and AJ Griffin—the latter of which came after Griffin took a charge—flipped the switch, and the Blue Devils went into the locker room leading 35-29.
Add in an 8-1 run in the first 2:14 of the second half, and Duke was on its way in this one.
Banchero was headed toward Man of the Match honors from the tip, as Moore and Keels made a concerted effort to get it to the star freshman in the low post. The O’Dea High School alum then went to work on the Demon Deacons’ Jake Laravia and Khadim Sy, displaying pristine footwork en route to six points on 3-of-3 from the floor by the first timeout. Concurrently, Duke built an early 12-4 lead, looking locked in on both ends of the floor.
"They were playing me just one-on-one," Banchero remarked. "I'm confident that I can win any one-on-one matchup, so I just wanted to take advantage and be aggressive.
"There was a conscious effort just to really to get him the ball, one as much as possible and two in different spots," Scheyer said on how Duke was looking to utilize Banchero against the Demon Deacons. "The way that he started the game off was big time, I really thought he was gonna go for 35 points there for a moment."
But right when Banchero left the contest, Wake Forest (13-4, 3-3) began to claw back into it thanks to Alondes Williams. The Oklahoma transfer, whose role as an initiator bears resemblance to Moore’s responsibilities for Duke, accounted for 11 of Wake Forest’s 29 first half points.
"We knew he was gonna come out aggressive and get a couple buckets, but we just wanted [him] to do them in volume," Moore said on the gameplan for Alondes Williams. "He took 21 shots to get 25 points, so we're good with that. If he's taking more of the shots, there's less shots that the other guys have to take."
Moore, who guarded Alondes Williams for extended stretches, might not have had his most productive night in the scoring column, but that does not tell the whole story. The versatile junior dictated things for Duke offensively, particularly with Jeremy Roach moving to the bench in favor of Griffin. Moore did not turn the ball over, continuing his theme of steady play from the point—he ranked third in the ACC in assist-to-turnover ratio entering the night.
With the contest in the opening frame evolving into a somewhat slower affair than these teams are accustomed to, as both are top 85 in adjusted tempo per KenPom, Duke’s half court defense was under the microscope. It delivered.
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After getting burnt constantly on backdoor cuts in Saturday’s 76-74 loss to Miami, the Blue Devils showed improvement with their man-to-man Wednesday. Roach, Moore and Keels did a solid job hedging ball screens, and Banchero and Mark Williams were not budging in the post.
Coming in, the Demon Deacons averaged 13.1 turnovers per game, 174th nationally. Well, that lack of care for the rock continued, as Duke disrupted passing lanes and made it a challenge for Wake Forest to get into a rhythm, resulting in 15 Demon Deacon giveaways.
"Defensively, we really battled against a Wake Forest offense who's one of the best offenses in the ACC, and best teams as well," Scheyer said.
Isaiah Mucius, after knocking down three triples in six straight games entering the bout, was held in check and shot 33.3% from the field. Laravia, arguably the Demon Deacons’ best pro prospect, dealt with foul trouble and notched just four made baskets.
Wake Forest threatened to go on another run around the midway point of the second half, cutting Duke’s lead to 11. Yet Banchero and Griffin had other ideas, outdoing each other countless times on the offensive end to put this baby to bed.
The freshman duo were relentless off the dribble throughout. Griffin ended with 22 points on 8-of-11 from the field, while his running mate from Seattle ended with 24, his second-highest point total of the season.
For Griffin, his flow started at the defensive end.
"That's the main point where I get that aggressiveness," Griffin said. "When they try to post me up, being physical, that's where you get going and you get the feel of the game."
Duke’s 12-point victory ended Wake Forest’s quest for an undefeated mark at home, gave the Blue Devils their first road win of the season and Scheyer his second win as acting head coach, the first being an 83-82 win over Boston College last season. Plus, Duke is now 177-79 in the all-time series between the in-state rivals.
Next for the Blue Devils is a Saturday matinee with N.C. State. Time will tell whether Krzyzewski, who was sidelined with a non-COVID-related illness Wednesday, will return for that 2 p.m. matchup.
"It's been a heck of a 24 hours, of course, with the news with Coach [K] not feeling well. We were hoping he was going to be able to make it to tonight's game, but it turned out it was best for him to be at home, and we're looking forward to getting him back as quickly as possible," Scheyer said.
Max Rego is a Trinity junior and sports managing editor for The Chronicle's 117th volume.