CLEMSON, S.C.— Quite frankly, Duke was never in danger of losing in Littlejohn Coliseum Thursday. That’s typically how it goes when you out rebound your opponent by nine, shoot 13.1% higher from downtown and turn it over just seven times.
Yet for these Blue Devils, in these types of contests, a weird trend has emerged: despite a sometimes breathtaking talent advantage, they fail to put teams away until late in the proceedings. Why is that the case?
It’s a loaded question. But we are now sitting in the middle of February, with seven games left in the regular season, and Thursday’s 82-64 win against Clemson represents the Blue Devils’ third-largest margin of victory in a weak ACC.
“With a young team, they have really good attitudes and they all wanna play well, but you can get caught up with you playing well…. You don’t see globally, you see locally, and that’s part of the maturity of a player and a team is to see globally,” head coach Mike Krzyzewski said on the ups and downs of this group.
Oftentimes, that lack of dominance stems from troubles with the ball in their hands. Too often when ahead, the Blue Devils’ half-court attack falters for extended stretches, a bugaboo that plagued them in two key spots Thursday.
The first was near the midway point of the first half. Holding an 18-6 lead and looking utterly dialed in, Duke went cold and let Clemson move within striking distance. Wendell Moore Jr. and Paolo Banchero steadied things late in the period, but going into the break, the Tigers still trailed by just 11.
At the start of the second half—the second key frame—Clemson went on a 10-5 run to cut the Blue Devils’ edge to six, getting the student section going in the process. Just like that, it was a ballgame.
“Just keep playing. No matter what the score, you can’t let your effort drop off, you can’t let your intensity drop off. So whether you’re up 20 or down 20, you gotta go out there and fight,” Clemson forward PJ Hall said, a testament to what Duke has to contend with on a nightly basis.
With 17:14 to go, the Blue Devils led 43-37 after Chase Hunter slammed home a dunk. What felt like a cruise-control win was now a battle, in the same vein as past matchups against N.C. State and Louisville.
But this time around, Duke had a trick up its sleeve—the reemerging Trevor Keels.
Keels scored just three points against Notre Dame in his return from a calf injury, but things have clicked since. The 6-foot-4 combo guard shot 57.1% from three across the North Carolina and Virginia, a sign that the streaky shooter can still fill it up.
Thursday, though, was an even more electrifying display of “Keel Mode”, as the freshman tied his career high with 25 points, 23 of which came in the final 20 minutes, on 9-of-13 from the field.
That gave the Blue Devils the kickstart for a furious finish.
“That was the mindset. When we get a lead like that, just keep fighting, keep pushing. Don’t let the team get back and get that crowd into it,” Keels said.
His ability to slither through the lane, finish through contact and knock it down from deep make up a lethal trifecta, a trifecta that has not been on full display since arguably the season-opener against Kentucky.
Thursday, though, featured all three, and Duke benefited.
“They were throwing different reads at us. I just did a good job reading the play, looking at big fella Mark [Williams], attacking when I needed to attack, passing when a person [was] open,” Keels said on how he took advantage of his opportunities.
If you add an efficient Keels to the imposing interior duo of Williams and Banchero and the rotating perimeter cast of Moore, AJ Griffin and Jeremy Roach, then you’ve got yourself a unit that can contend for a national title, full stop. Duke being 14-1 when the Paul VI alum scores in double figures is proof of that.
The metrics prove it, too. If you combine the third-best assist-to-turnover ratio, 1.64, in the country and the 26th-best 3-point defense nationally, that should be a lethal equation.
Not to mention that this conference, since a second-place finish in 2018, has slid a notch down KenPom’s conference ratings every season. This is, to put it mildly, not your older brother’s ACC.
Despite all that, Duke is still in the throes of a full-on war for the conference regular season title, with a single game separating the top five in the standings. Blowout victories don’t make a resumé, but with Duke locked in a battle with the likes of Kentucky, UCLA and Texas Tech for a No. 2-seed, dominant stretches in ACC action will at least add a layer to its body of work.
If an 18-point win is the start of something, maybe that body of work is about to receive a few reinforcements. That’s at least what Krzyzewski is hoping.
“We’re moving along. This is a heck of an eight-day stretch, starting with Carolina, Virginia, here…. We knew this would be a tough stretch but getting this win was big,” Krzyzewski said.
Knocking off the Tigers might have been a “big” win, but Duke needs more of where that came from to solidify itself as a true contender.
Time is, quite frankly, running out.
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Max Rego is a Trinity junior and sports managing editor for The Chronicle's 117th volume.