PITTSBURGH—With the season winding down, the Blue Devils are still just getting going.
In its penultimate act, No. 4 Duke cruised to a 86-56 win against Pittsburgh on the road at the Petersen Events Center. With a seven-game win streak in hand and a chance to clinch at least a share of the ACC regular-season title for the first time since 2010, the Blue Devils did not disappoint the sizable crowd of Duke fans on the road as the postseason nears with Duke playing some of its best basketball of the season. With more of a neutral-site feel, the Blue Devils turned the page of the calendar to March but did not flip the script on how they were closing their season.
"I like where my team is at right now. And we just got through playing three games in six days on the road," head coach Mike Krzyzewski said. "So to end up in first playing those three road games—that says a lot for these kids."
While before the game Pittsburgh head coach and former Duke player and associate head coach Jeff Capel presented Krzyzewski with a steel fist representing his tenets of winning, Duke (26-4, 16-3 in the ACC) was unafraid to flex its muscles and steal a victory in the opponent’s house.
"The fist is something we've used since I was the coach at Army and it's really five guys playing as one," Krzyzewski said. "The five fingers are communication, trust, collective responsibility, care and pride. And my guys believe in that."
While Banchero followed up his 21-point, nine-assist game at Syracuse with another 21 points, the star of the night was freshman guard Trevor Keels, who put together a season-high 27-point game on 5-of-8 shooting from deep. After only hitting one shot for four points last game, the Clinton, Md., native pronounced he was back in action, unafraid to demand the ball and pull the trigger from deep.
Keels was remarkably efficient with his 10-for-15 overall shooting, and also set a career-high in made 3-pointers.
"When we defend like that, start off the game defending like that... we're good shooters so the ball's going to go in," Keels remarked.
As Keels said, aside from strong shooting and only turning the ball over six times, interior defense was the key to the early lead Tuesday. Stifling work from Duke’s guards fending off drives and bigs Theo John and Mark Williams swatting nearly everything inside led to consecutive long possessions for the Panthers while Duke played fast on the other end. Williams added to his season block total with two more, while the Blue Devils kept Pittsburgh (11-19, 6-13) to only 19 points in the first half. Panthers big Mouhamadou Gueye was no problem defensively for Duke, but he pulled down rebounds to give his team additional chances, limiting what had been a strength of Duke’s early in the game.
Even as the Panthers picked up the offense—matching their first-half scoring total just over eight minutes into the second half—the margin hung between 15 and 19 until Duke went on a late 17-3 run to give itself a 31-point lead.
Problems only arose for Duke after John picked up three fouls in just over two minutes to close the first before picking up his fourth foul at 14:38 in the second half. Duke missed his presence defensively, as he would have been key to further neutralize the Panthers’ suddenly-increased scoring output.
Williams, on the other hand, after notching a career-high 28 points against Syracuse, managed his first basket of the night just under a minute into the second half. The Blue Devils’ ability to run through players up and down their roster has been a strength of late, with five different players leading the team in scoring in the last five contests.
"Makes me a better coach. More plays work," Krzyzewski said. "These guys kind of take turns—they don't care who leads us in scoring."
Duke controlled the tempo, working fast offensively while making Pittsburgh work on its own offensive end. In an attempt to slow the offense, the Panthers temporarily pressed Duke in the full court, which hardly affected the Blue Devils’ half-court offense. A sequence at 6:56 in the first half saw Williams fade away as the shot clock wound down only for an uncovered AJ Griffin to cruise in for an easy slam. Such strings of plays were the theme of the night as a plethora of Pittsburgh mistakes helped lead to 21 points off turnovers and nine second-chance points.
Duke’s conference foes only started to find some shots from outside later in the first half, but each Panther make was initially countered by another bucket from Duke. After the Blue Devils’ hot start, the Panthers cut the first-half lead to no less than nine with sophomore big John Hugley leading the way with his 19-point night alongside senior guard Jamarius Burton’s 13-point game.
In their final road game before postseason play commences, the Blue Devils took many pages from the playbook from this past Saturday’s win at Syracuse and looked to score early and often via the deep ball. Keels and Banchero got in on the action from deep, helping Duke start the game 4-for-5 from 3-point range en route to an early 22-7 lead at the 11:48 mark. And like Saturday, the Blue Devils never took their foot off the gas.
Duke heads back home for Krzyzewski’s final home rivalry matchup against North Carolina Saturday.
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Micah Hurewitz is a Trinity junior and a sports managing editor of The Chronicle's 118th volume.