After nearly two weeks, Duke saw the court once more Tuesday night. And, when all was said and done, the Blue Devils walked away with the win.
In its first game back following a brief COVID-19 pause, No. 2 Duke shook off some early rust to get past visiting Georgia Tech at Cameron Indoor Stadium 69-57. After allowing just 23 first-half points, the Blue Devils continued to play smothering defense into the second half en route to a comfortable win on their home floor. Complete with double-double performances from freshman phenom Paolo Banchero and sophomore center Mark Williams, Tuesday’s game served not only as a return to play for the Blue Devils, but also a return to normalcy for the ACC’s top-ranked team.
“That was an exhausting game,” said head coach Mike Krzyzewski after the game. “Because both teams played really hard defensively. And that’s what saved it for us.”
After stretching the lead to 12 points in the waning moments of the opening half, Duke continued its strong defense to open the second, forcing an early shot-clock violation and keeping the Yellow Jackets at arm’s length. The home team never quite pulled away, but head coach Josh Pastner’s Yellow Jackets never truly threatened to take the lead back at any point in the final frame. Georgia Tech did muster one final, furious run to close the game in which it came within six points, but its comeback bid ultimately proved to be too little too late.
From the opening tip, it was clear that Duke (12-1, 2-0 in the ACC) did not have its best on the offensive side of the ball. The Yellow Jackets entered the game with a zone defense, and the Blue Devils struggled to break it, getting off to a 3-of-12 start from the field and a 0-of-3 start from three. Georgia Tech (6-6, 0-3) eventually abandoned the zone as Duke settled in, but the Blue Devils still finished the half without the gaudiest of numbers, shooting just 31% from the field at the break.
With junior captain Wendell Moore Jr. 0-for-5 from the field and the team working hard to find offensive production, the Blue Devils relied on rock-solid defense in the opening frame to preserve their lead. Georgia Tech’s senior scoring duo of Jordan Usher and Michael Devoe—the latter of which is the ACC’s leading scorer at 21.2 points per game coming in—combined for just five first-half points as Duke made life just as difficult for the Yellow Jackets through the first 20 minutes.
“The lack of practice, the lack of conditioning, really had its impact, and [Georgia Tech] did, on our offensive execution, and shots, free throws,” Krzyzewski said in reference to Duke’s defensive performance. “But it did not defensively and rebounding-wise.”
“Defense is really the key to our team,” Krzyzewski added later on.
Despite its apparent first-half rust, Duke got to the free-throw line an eye-popping 19 times in the first half. When the buzzer sounded at the break, the Blue Devils still led by 12 after yielding a season-low 23 points.
On a night notably devoid of outstanding individual scoring performances, Williams made his presence felt like few other players on the court, snatching nine first-half rebounds and 14 total as Duke dominated on the boards. The sophomore center’s second double-double of the season played an important role on a night in which points were hard to come by for both sides.
“Mark has not rebounded well, and tonight he rebounded great,” Krzyzewski said.
“That was a big game for Mark,” Krzyzewski added.
For the Yellow Jackets, the relative lack of production from Devoe and Usher proved difficult to overcome against Duke’s staunch defense. Devoe came alive in the second, finishing with 21 points, and the duo neared its combined nightly average of 36.3 points, but the slow start from Georgia Tech’s only two players averaging double-digit scoring was too much for the visitors to overcome.
The shooting numbers for the Blue Devils and Yellow Jackets, both from the field and from distance, were similarly poor on both sides Tuesday night. But Duke dominated the battle at the stripe, attempting 40 free throws to Georgia Tech’s 10. The Blue Devils did miss 14 of those free throw attempts, but created a clear advantage at the line all game long.
Put in context, Duke’s slow start Tuesday night is more than understandable, and its overall performance becomes remarkable. The program was forced to postpone its previous two games at Clemson and Notre Dame due to a COVID-19 outbreak within the program, and head coach Mike Krzyzewski noted in the ACC head coaches Zoom call Monday that his team was unable to practice until the day before the game.
“Get one win and on to the next one,” said freshman forward AJ Griffin. “It’s the same mindset. It doesn’t matter. Whatever circumstance we’re in, we just continue to keep playing hard and trying to get a win.”
The Blue Devils return to action Saturday against surging Miami at Cameron Indoor Stadium.
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Jonathan Levitan is a Trinity junior and sports editor of The Chronicle's 118th volume.