GREENVILLE, S.C.—Coming off a disappointing conclusion to both the regular season and ACC tournament, it was essential that the Blue Devils set the tone of the NCAA tournament early.
And that they did, taking down No. 15-seed Cal State Fullerton 78-61 Friday evening at Bon Secours Wellness Arena in their first NCAA tournament game in 1,083 days. Paolo Banchero led the way for No. 2-seed Duke with 17 points, while Mark Williams and Wendell Moore Jr. followed suit with 15 and 13 points, respectively, in an overall balanced offensive effort.
"It felt great to be back [in the NCAA tournament]," head coach Mike Krzyzewski said. "I wanted to make sure—I was concerned about how nervous our guys would be. They've had a great week of practice.... Our kids did a great job. It was great to be back in the tournament."
Where Duke really set the tone, however, was on the defensive end. Krzyzewski and company talked a lot during Thursday’s media availability about how defense would be a focus entering the NCAA tournament, and that focus was apparent Friday.
The Blue Devils finished with 10 blocks, with Williams leading the way at five, and never seemed to allow easy baskets—even when the game was already out of reach.
"We did a pretty good job on that," Williams said of improved defensive communication. "Obviously, you can always improve. For us to do well, defense is going to be really important—communicating, making all those right decisions, rotations, whatever it is."
Another obvious point of focus on Duke’s end was ball movement, with the Blue Devils assisting on 21 of their 29 made field goals. Moore paced the offense with six assists to go along with his 13 points and six rebounds, the kind of all-around stat line that’s become a mainstay for the junior captain. But the highlight of the game when it came to assist numbers was Williams, who set a career high with five and totaled just the third 15-5-5-5 game in Duke history (points, rebounds, assists and blocks).
The Blue Devils came out of halftime with a respectable 37-27 edge, but from turnover issues to struggles on the defensive glass it was evident during the first half that they weren’t playing their best basketball.
And for the first several minutes of the second half, those same struggles continued. But at the 16-minute mark, Duke took control. First, a Williams and-one. Then, an AJ Griffin wing three. And finally, a Banchero and-one that stretched the Blue Devils’ lead to 51-33 and eluded a roar from the blue side of the arena.
Guess who notched the assist in both of those latter two plays, by the way? That's right: Williams.
From there it was never really a ballgame—the Titans would occasionally hit a three or a second-chance bucket to keep the score from getting too out of hand, but every time Duke had a response, typically in the form of an imposing dunk inside.
"I thought Mark made two consecutive plays there in the second half that produced six points," Krzyzewski said. "A loose ball, AJ got a three and then he made a terrific pass to Paolo.... When your 7'1" center is doing that, you got a good chance of winning."
Krzyzewski’s squad jumped out to a quick 13-2 advantage in the opening five minutes of the contest, giving an early indication that this one could get ugly quickly. Banchero was draining threes, Williams was dominating the interior and the Blue Devils weren’t allowing anything easy on the defensive end.
But the Titans stuck with it, cutting their deficit to just six with four minutes remaining in the half. One of the main catalysts that kept Cal State Fullerton in the game was Duke’s turnover troubles—the Blue Devils totaled eight turnovers in the first 20 minutes, including a stretch of four consecutive possessions that ended in a giveaway.
Nevertheless, when Duke needed to take control it did, as Banchero finished the half with two ferocious dunks to stretch the Blue Devils’ lead back to double digits entering the break.
One point of concern from Friday’s contest, though, was the performance of Trevor Keels. The freshman guard played just 21 minutes and finished with just six points and four turnovers—he also missed both of his 3-point attempts and has now missed his last 14 treys dating back to the Blue Devils’ quarterfinal ACC tournament matchup vs. Syracuse.
Meanwhile, Jeremy Roach took Keels’ place in the starting lineup Friday—his first start since Feb. 12 at Boston College—and contributed 12 points and five assists in 34 minutes.
Duke now moves on to the Round of 32 Sunday against No. 7 seed Michigan State—which beat No. 10 seed Davidson later Friday night—in a rematch of the 2019 Elite Eight.
"It's exciting—we've won an NCAA game," Krzyzewski said. "These kids have won an NCAA game. In order to win something big, you gotta win NCAA games. And we looked at this as a championship level game and we'll look at Sunday as a championship level game."
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