With two games remaining in the regular season, we have arrived at the point where teams have better figured out how to win games if any semblance of postseason success is to be expected. In the Saturday showcase in Cameron Indoor Stadium, the Blue Devils continued their home dominance while also demonstrating a completeness that championship teams strive to find.
An 81-65 victory in the rematch against Virginia Tech tied together the facets that have offered the Blue Devils glimpses of what could be when everyone is clicking and playing on the same page.
“I think you can see the growth that our guys have made throughout the course of the season,” head coach Jon Scheyer said. “And then of course understanding who you're playing with and how to play to each other's strengths. And I thought that was evident tonight.”
Almost a month ago, the Blue Devils took what they had learned in a road loss against Wake Forest to turn in a scrappy win. Saturday's rematch offered Duke a chance both to even the season series against the team that had given it trouble both in last March's ACC tournament and in Blacksburg, Va., in January. Right the ship they did, and it came with some of the cleanest and most team-oriented basketball this team has played all season.
That narrow last-minute loss against the Hokies left the Blue Devils with plenty of questions: Where was team captain Jeremy Roach? What is Dereck Lively II’s impact going to be? How can Duke contend with the 3-point shooting of Hunter Cattoor and Sean Pedulla?
The list goes on.
When head coach Mike Young and the Hokies marched into Durham for Saturday's game, these questions were promptly resolved. Lively hammered home a first-minute dunk and Duke was on its way to a 19-5 start during which six different Blue Devils scored.
“I think we just wanted to come out and punch them in the mouth early,” freshman forward Mark Mitchell said. “Especially coming off how we lost to them over in Virginia Tech I think we’re just ready to play.”
The Blue Devils shot 56.6% from the field and scored 81 points — their third-highest scoring output in ACC play — thanks in large part to connectivity offensively, good passes and strong defense. They have threaded together a four-game win streak which has seen assist numbers skyrocket to nearly 19 per game, turnovers plummet to under 10 and scoring distribution reach new levels: After Saturday, the Duke starting five has all scored in double-digits in back-to-back games for the first time since November 2016.
Teams that take care of their possessions win games. Teams that are able to effectively share the ball win games. And teams that play good defense win games. Duke has looked to embody that, and Saturday was just the finest example in a season that, at a time in the not-so-distant past, seemed all but lost.
Mitchell scored a suave 17 on an efficient 6-of-8 clip in a performance Scheyer called his “best game” and said the 6-foot-8 wing gave a “huge boost.” But one player’s best game of the season was just the tip of the iceberg.
Roach, who left Blacksburg a month and two days before Saturday’s contest with just six points on a dreary 3-for-9 from the field, looked confident as ever, shooting and passing his way to a first-career double-double with 19 points and 11 assists.
“When our whole team is healthy you have a couple of weeks of practice, continuity is getting there, we just trust each other and stay together,” Roach said.
Scheyer added that he was “on another level,” and that “[Roach and freshman guard Tyrese Proctor] played close to a perfect game.”
Roach’s passes opened up a plethora of scoring opportunities — eight of his career-high 11 assists led to either layups or dunks as he fed the paint whenever the opportunity presented itself. He helped Lively (13 points) to his own career-high scoring night on perfect 6-for-6 shooting and assisted on each of Duke's final four made field goals.
One of those passes came when Roach’s shot hit the side of the backboard and the junior guard scooped the ball from falling out of bounds to the waiting hands of Proctor at the 3-point line. His three was a crucial step in expanding Duke’s lead from eight to 24 on a 16-0 run that ended with just more than 13 minutes left in the game.
Another of those passes was an attempted lob to Lively. The freshman barely got a hand on the pass after drawing contact from Virginia Tech’s Lynn Kidd, but still eased the ball into the hoop after it swirled around the rim for what seemed like an eternity. He asked his teammates with a smile if the shot fell, though he could have deduced the answer from the home crowd’s reaction.
“It was that kind of night for all of us,” Lively said when asked if that shot was representative of how the game played out. “We played together, you can feel the energy from Cameron, and it was just being able to be in a position where we all were comfortable. We were passing to each other, we were defending, we were talking, we were doing everything right.”
Lively clearly found his own role in the offense thanks to well-set-up opportunities, but he anchored the defense, too. At one point, a student standing behind press row pointed out “they are scared to shoot over Lively,” seconds before he stuffed a Justyn Mutts shot at the rim.
“I know I'm already in their head,” Lively said. “So if they see me, they already stop and they are already rethinking their decision.”
The stalwart showing from Lively — who ranks third in the nation in block rate, per KenPom — was not alone in giving Duke an edge; the Blue Devils brilliantly decoded senior guard Hunter Cattoor, who had rained 12 3-pointers in his previous two outings against Duke. By switching on the perimeter instead of fighting over screens on dribble hand-offs for Cattoor and Sean Pedulla, Proctor and the Blue Devils contained him to the tune of four attempted shots all night, including just one in the first half.
“I give the team credit. They said it without even me having to make a huge thing about it,” Scheyer said. “Tyrese — it was the matchup anyway, but he wanted that matchup. … [Cattoor’s] baskets are worth more. He's one of those guys. And so that was a huge point of emphasis for our defense.”
Duke finished its night having held its opponent to under its season average for the 25th time in 29 games and answered each of the questions the same Hokies team had left the Blue Devils wondering about.
Scheyer said Roach and Proctor played a near-perfect night, but that sentiment could extend up and down the roster.
More questions will need to be answered should Duke finish the season undefeated at home and with a win against North Carolina to enter the postseason as one of the nation’s hottest teams.
But in terms of fixing this team’s pressing issues in a rematch with a dangerous foe, Saturday night was a massive step in the right direction.
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Micah Hurewitz is a Trinity junior and a sports managing editor of The Chronicle's 118th volume.