SOUTH BEND, IND.—If there were a basketball beauty contest, Duke’s Monday night clash with Notre Dame would likely get last place.
With a final score of 57-43, not only did the Blue Devils’ score their fewest points in a game this season, but they also gave up the fewest points, and in both metrics it’s not particularly close. Previously, Duke had its lowest point total in their 71-66 loss to Ohio State, a frustrating game plagued by general malaise amongst the challengers in blue, and it gave up the fewest in a mammoth, if unsurprising, 92-52 win against Gardner-Webb.
This game, though, was an entirely different beast. Unlike Ohio State, Notre Dame didn’t have the fight and edge of a team hungering to take out the nation’s top dog, and unlike against Gardner-Webb, Duke didn’t run circles around the Fighting Irish with sheer talent. Both teams struggled to knock down shots, with the Blue Devils shooting 39% and Notre Dame shooting 28% from the field.
However, when offense takes a back seat, you get to put one of the Blue Devils’ greatest strengths in the driver's seat: defense.
“[Notre Dame] can be an offensive juggernaut. They've been playing so well, and they're old and together, but tonight we were able to defend them,” head coach Mike Krzyzewski said after the game.
Coming into the game, Notre Dame had the most made threes per game of any team in the ACC; Monday night they had three, and none in the first half. While part of that was the shooting curse that permeated the air in Purcell Pavilion, a much greater part of that was Duke’s suffocating defense.
Notre Dame head coach Mike Brey explained after the game that his team’s game plan was to of course play the best defense they could, but be OK with giving up the 2-pointers if it meant they could get to their end of the court and drain triples like they normally do.
The Fighting Irish have found considerable success this season by sniping from downtown and relying on outshooting their opponents to win games. They were 10-1 in their last eleven games before hosting Duke while having the highest volume of 3-point attempts as a percentage of total field goal attempts in the ACC—attempts from distance account for 43.8% of their total shots, which is nearly seven percentage points higher than the conference average—so that’s not necessarily a bad strategy. But it didn’t work.
“[Duke] really took away the arc,” Brey said. “That's a little bit how we tried to play people: like OK, well you can score two on us. We feel we're gonna get on a run and make a couple threes. And we never could do that.”
Not only are the Blue Devils skilled on defense, but their size and strength advantage cannot be ignored. Be it Paolo Banchero, AJ Griffin, Trevor Keels, Mark Williams or any of the other physically-imposing athletes Duke can throw at you, when the guy guarding you at the perimeter has bought into a good man-to-man defensive scheme and has well over 200 pounds to throw around in it, it’s going to be hard to get quality shots off.
“We've had Kentucky…we've had [North] Carolina come through here with bodies—ain’t nobody's got bodies like these guys,” Brey said.
“Griffin, Keels, Banchero. Those are the three young guys, right? Are they 18?” Brey laughed, then added on, “My strength coach is sitting there going, ‘We could have Nate Laszewski bench press for five years…,’ right? But that’s okay. That’s what we are, and some nights we get you. Not tonight.”
One of the ways Notre Dame tried to combat the Blue Devils’ size was the generous use of screens to try to get its players open. However, even as they drew Duke’s bigs up high, both Williams and Theo John were effective in switching and keeping the defensive momentum going. Williams and Johns’ athleticism kept the Fighting Irish from beating them with speed, and their lengthy reach and responsibility let them stave off potential explosive plays.
On John’s defensive ability, Krzyzewski emphasized the development of his lateral movement, a sentiment that echoes what associate head coach Chris Carrawell said about Williams in a Jan. 27 media availability.
“As long as [Williams and John] don't rush the ball handler, [and] they stay in front—they're wide; [Williams] has got a 7-foot-6 wingspan, [John] has got 7-foot-1. So, if they're wide and they give late pressure instead of rushing them—they've worked hard at [that],” Krzyzewski said.
By the end of the night, the Blue Devils had put on a defensive clinic. However, on offense, they met a Notre Dame team that also brought its best resistance game. Brey emphasized that he was happy with the way his team played when Duke had the ball, and for good reason, as the top scoring offense in the ACC was held to its lowest score in a game this season. Still, teams are defined by what they do in adversity, not by what they do when everything is going right, and the Blue Devils delivered on that front.
While the Blue Devils couldn’t totally shake the shooting curse, their persistence to at least keep trying while continuing to win the game in other ways was what gave them the victory. From out-rebounding Notre Dame 51-36, to neutralizing a formidable distance shooting threat, to persevering through a drudgery of a game, it ultimately didn’t matter for the Blue Devils that scoring was sparse.
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Sasha Richie is a Trinity senior and a sports managing editor of The Chronicle's 118th volume.