Basketball is a game of runs. Sustained periods of momentum or shot-making can often determine the outcome of a game, as can a stretch where shots aren’t falling — but this theory can also play out over the course of an entire season. Players experience hot streaks and shooting slumps that come and go throughout the year, and if too many shooters are cold at the same point in time, a team can drop some games they are favored to win.
This is what plagued the Blue Devils in their recent pair of road losses. Between its Nov. 29 loss at Arkansas and its Dec. 2 loss at Georgia Tech, Duke shot a combined 38.8% from the field and just 26.3% from beyond the arc. Back in the comfort of their home stadium to take on Charlotte Saturday afternoon, though, the Blue Devils found their groove.
In its 80-56 victory against the 49ers, Duke shot 50% total and an incredible 55.6% from 3-point range. The sharp shooting was spearheaded by senior Jeremy Roach, junior Jaylen Blakes and freshman Jared McCain, as each guard knocked in three triples.
“I wanted to get us moving better, passing it better,” head coach Jon Scheyer said after the game. “I’m not surprised at all with the shooting numbers because of it.”
On the very first offensive possession of the game for the Blue Devils, sophomore center Kyle Filipowski set a screen on McCain’s defender at the elbow. The Sacramento, Calif., native sprinted around Filipowski to the top of the arc where he received a pass, turned and knocked down the shot to get the scoring started and tally the first three of his career-high 21-point showing.
“[McCain went] through probably the worst shooting stretch he's had in his life,” Scheyer said. “For him to come out the way he did, it talks about his character. He’s tough-minded.”
After showing significant promise at the beginning of the season, McCain struggled during the road skid against the Razorbacks and Yellow Jackets. The Centennial product made just four of his 17 shot attempts, including going 1-of-6 on triples. Against Charlotte, McCain cashed in three of his seven shots from deep, finished at the rim and was perfect from the charity stripe.
“[McCain] is a guy that really believes in himself,” Scheyer said. “I thought it showed today with his response.”
When Duke needs some energy, it turns to Blakes. The Somerset, N.J., native has been a reliable defender and spark plug for the Blue Devils for the past two years, but he has struggled to find consistent minutes throughout his career. With sophomore guard Tyrese Proctor sidelined due to an ankle injury, though, Blakes got his opportunity against the 49ers — and with the performance he displayed, it would be hard to fathom a decrease in minutes moving forward.
“[Blakes] plays as hard as he can every single game on the defensive end,” McCain said after the game. “And he was able to show it on the offensive end tonight.”
After a solid performance in Duke’s opener against Dartmouth, Blakes had scored just four points in every other game combined this season. But Saturday afternoon, he was perfect. The Blair Academy product went 5-for-5 from the field, 3-for-3 from deep and 2-for-2 from the free-throw line en route to a season-high 15 points. After Charlotte axed the lead to 11 in the middle of the second half, it was Blakes who drove to the rim and contorted his body to avoid a defender, laying the ball in to stop the bleeding for the Blue Devils.
“We had a collective purpose,” Blakes said. “I just fed off of [my teammates’] energy. Everybody that came out and the starting five, they kind of set the tone, and it's easy to just follow their energy.”
While the exceptional showings from McCain and Blakes could be categorized under the breakout label, Roach just maintained his well-established track record against the 49ers. The Leesburg, Va., native has been the most consistent cog for Duke this season by a comfortable margin, and he registered yet another solid outing Saturday.
“I just wanted to come out here and set the tone,” Roach said after the win. “I had some long conversations with some people this week and I just think that it’s my time to do that.”
If Roach’s goal was to set the tone, he can consider it accomplished. Less than two minutes into the contest, the captain drove into the paint and finished through contact to set himself up for the hoop-and-harm opportunity. He knocked down the free throw, and the Blue Devils never looked back. By the time the final buzzer blared, Roach had casually amassed 18 points and three assists without turning the ball over. It was another episode in the senior’s series of impressive showings.
While a better shooting performance and some noticeably more aggressive defense allowed Duke to control the game from wire to wire, it wasn’t necessarily a flawless afternoon. A stretch of lousy offense in the heart of the second half allowed Charlotte to climb back into the game, a banged-up Filipowski made just two of his 10 attempts from the field and the Blue Devils committed 11 turnovers — but none of that really felt like it mattered. The week of practice between games paid off for Duke where it needed it most, as it was finally able to find the nylon at a more consistent rate.
When it comes down to it, it’s a make-or-miss game — and the Blue Devils finally found themselves on the right side of that conundrum. Duke’s early season gauntlet is in the rearview, and Scheyer and his squad are hoping their shooting slump goes with it. The Blue Devils are optimistic that Saturday afternoon’s showing inside Cameron Indoor Stadium was the start of a new type of run — one where the shot-making comes a little easier.
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