FAYETTEVILLE, Ark.—Jared McCain takes the inbound, turns his back to his man and hands the ball off to a jetting Caleb Foster. With nobody open for a pass, he steps back at the top of the arc, hangs in the air and releases.
The crowd, for the first time all night, is silent. Then, it roars.
The freshman’s shot clinks off the backboard and bounces on the right side of the rim before being scooped up by Arkansas guard Khalif Battle. Kyle Filipowski fouls, Battle makes one of his two attempts from the line and the clock races to zero. Impatient students, who had already squeezed down the staircases, storm over railings and crash over one another onto the hardwood as the Duke team quickly shuttles away, its miraculous 12-point, two-minute comeback bid officially thwarted.
The Blue Devils were inches — literally — away from pulling off the remarkable in their 80-75 loss to the Razorbacks Wednesday night. Had Foster’s shot erred ever so slightly more to the left, Duke would have been down one, at worst three after fouling, and with the ball, controlling its own destiny inside a vibrant Bud Walton Arena filled with a record-setting 20-plus-thousand-fan home support.
But that didn’t happen, of course, and the Blue Devils learned a valuable lesson in the process: growing up, especially to the stature it aspires to reach, aches and takes time. This is not just true for rookies but also for returners — something both Duke and Arkansas epitomized Wednesday, albeit in inverse ways.
“I don't care if you’re experienced or not, I don't think you see many environments like this — it’s a different kind of thing,” head coach Jon Scheyer said after the game. “... [The veterans have] been in some big-time environments where you know what it's like. We need them to provide the poise, to provide the toughness.”
To their credit, especially down the stretch, Filipowski and senior captain Jeremy Roach did. In fact, the duo were the only two Blue Devils to score in the final 2:16 of the game during their attempt at a desperate fightback, and combined for 48 points across the contest — well over half of Duke’s final tally. But the likes of Tyrese Proctor and Mark Mitchell, both among the sophomores Scheyer considers “veterans” as well as sixth-man center Ryan Young, put up just 14 points between them, shot an aggregate 5-for-20 from the field and had 10 combined fouls.
Nearly 50 joint points from two starters is enough to get the job done in most games, but Wednesday was not one such occasion. This was because Arkansas’ elder statesmen, particularly the trio of Battle, Trevon Brazile and El Ellis, performed just as well on the offensive front by racking up 49 total points, while the likes of Chandler Lawson and Layden Blocker, snatched Duke’s offensive mojo when the pendulum started to swing with important defensive plays to the tune of six Lawson swats and two Blocker steals.
This is made all the more impressive by the fact that the Razorbacks’ most productive scorer, Tramon Mark, was out with a groin injury — a testament to both the depth of head coach Eric Musselman’s bench and Arkansas’ ability to capitalize on the opportunities the visitors afforded it.
“We don't have the record that we were hopeful to have,” Musselman said. “You lose tonight's game, now, all of a sudden, you're .500. And then you're wondering, you gotta get some signature wins. And, there was a lot of pressure on tonight's game — a lot. And I thought our guys responded.”
Mistakes must be limited in hostile road environments like Bud Walton, and the Blue Devils simply made too many errors at inopportune times Wednesday. Duke’s final assist-to-turnover ratio sat at 10-8 and the team missed 43 of its 67 total shot attempts, and 16 of its 22 from deep. Foster’s late-game miss will be the one fans remember most, but the Blue Devils struggled to convert easy buckets throughout the game, failing seven layups in the second half to Arkansas’ one.
So what does this all have to do with growing up?
It’s not necessarily that Duke was overmatched or appeared shocked by the occasion. Its talent and ability to string runs together is apparent — Roach and Filipowski’s charge to make it competitive at the death proves that. Rather, the Blue Devils, just as they did in a similarly frustrating, five-point home defeat against Arizona earlier this month, are figuring out which schemes, which combinations of players, which types of shots and which matchups are most conducive to taking down elite opponents like the Razorbacks and Wildcats. And although the result is not what it hoped for, Duke did a lot of unmasking — growing up, if you will — about itself Wednesday.
It learned that McCain has elite rebounding skills (he had 10) despite being a guard. It learned that freshman forward TJ Power has a lethal arm from outside the arc, a weapon Scheyer will absolutely want to utilize moving forward. It learned that should it clean up missed rebounds and layups, tighten up the turnovers and get the ball in Roach and Filipowski’s hands during crunch time, Duke can put dangerous, high-volume scoring streaks together that few teams can match.
“We need our veterans to play like veterans,” Scheyer said.
They did exactly that in the last two minutes against the Razorbacks, and it nearly allowed the Blue Devils to emerge with a win snatched not from the jaws, but the esophagus of impending defeat.
“I believe in all those guys,” Scheyer said. “We have our core group. We have to continue to figure out how to play together and how there's more of a rhythm.”
Duke clearly has the bodies. Now, it is just a matter of growing into them.
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Andrew Long is a Trinity junior and sports editor of The Chronicle's 119th volume.