No. 5-seed Duke came out roaring in Thursday’s NCAA tournament opener against No. 12-seed Oral Roberts, scoring the first 15 points at the Amway Center in Orlando, Fla., and limiting the Golden Eagles’ high-flying offense. With 20 minutes to play in this Round of 64 tilt, the Blue Devils are in front 40-23.
When Oral Roberts made its Cinderella run to the Sweet 16 as a No. 15 seed in 2021, scoring guard Max Abmas was the star. The Texas native scored 29 points in a first-round upset of Ohio State and ultimately averaged 26.7 points in a magical three-game stretch.
Abmas has been just as good this season, averaging 22.2 points and hitting 3.5 3-pointers per contest. Duke freshman Tyrese Proctor drew the early defensive assignment against the Golden Eagles’ leader Thursday evening, and his success set the tone for a dominant opening sequence for Duke. On one play, Proctor rebounded an Abmas miss, pushed the pace and assisted on a driving layup by Jeremy Roach to make the score 6-0 in favor of the Blue Devils.
Abmas found his footing later after finding space for his team’s first 3-pointer with 9:16 on the clock. He has eight points on 3-of-8 shooting with three assists at the half as his team trails big in Orlando.
Out in front
In its three wins at the ACC tournament last week, the Blue Devils trailed for just 4:32 in their back-and-forth semifinal win against Miami and led both Pittsburgh and Virginia wire-to-wire. It has been a few weeks since this team trailed for a significant stretch.
After 20 minutes at the Amway Center, that trend has only continued. Duke headed into the first media timeout up 11-0 after a head-on Roach three, and the Golden Eagles only got on the board after missing their first 12 attempts from the field. Abmas eventually broke the drought with 11:56 in the half on an impressive feed to DeShang Weaver, but only after the Blue Devils went up 15-0 to start the game.
Oral Roberts entered Thursday’s contest as the third-highest-scoring team in the country; it exited the opening frame with just 23 points, flirting with the 17-point mark set by Virginia in Saturday’s ACC tournament final for the least points allowed by the Blue Devils in a first half this season.
Proctor’s sturdy work against Abmas played a large factor in that number, but it would be remiss not to mention the job that freshman center and ACC All-Defensive Team selection Dereck Lively II did in the middle. After opening the scoring with a dunk, Lively scored just two more points, but he collected nine rebounds and four blocks while limiting 7-foot-5 center Connor Vanover to just six points.
Whitehead on fire
After contributing 16 points to Duke’s winning effort against Miami in Greensboro, N.C., Dariq Whitehead came off the bench to provide a similar boost Thursday. By the time Whitehead entered with 15:24 on the clock, the Blue Devils already led 11-0, but that did not stop the freshman forward from making his mark before the halftime buzzer.
As Oral Roberts picked up its scoring pace after the long drought to start the game, Whitehead helped Duke respond, nailing a pair of threes and entering the half shooting 4-of-6 with 10 points, including a triple to give the Blue Devils their largest lead at 28-10. He might not have been a key contributor to the jaw-dropping first act, but he was crucial to the equally important follow-up.
Player of the half: Jeremy Roach
While Whitehead provided the late scoring burst, Roach got things started by leading the young Blue Devils to a big lead, flexing his March experience and heading to the locker room with a team-high 13 points — just one game after setting a new career-high with 23 points against Virginia. His straightway 3-pointer to give Duke its 11-0 lead, while early, was the biggest shot of the half, ending the Golden Eagles’ chances of reclaiming the early lead and setting the stage for some younger, budding March stars — such as Whitehead — to carry the torch late in the half.
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Jonathan Levitan is a Trinity junior and sports editor of The Chronicle's 118th volume.