Duke took another big step forward Wednesday with a dominating 84-60 win over Wake Forest in Winston-Salem.
The victory gives the Blue Devils two in a row, and pushes their overall record back above .500 for the first time since the loss to North Carolina on Feb. 6 dropped to them to 7-7.
Head coach Mike Krzyzewski and his staff redirected the team’s focus to defense following the back-to-back losses against UNC and Notre Dame that saw the Blue Devils give up an average of 92 points per game.
So far, his team has responded in a big way, allowing just 53 points to NC State on Saturday, and 60 to the Demon Deacons.
“We played really well,” Krzyzewski said. “We’ve had like six straight days, the two before State, and then State, where we just had great practices and worked so hard and then it translated to the State game. Gave them off Sunday. Again, had two great days where these guys are working so hard and then it translated tonight.”
Defensively, the Blue Devils executed their game plan masterfully, as the Demon Deacons, who average nine made 3-pointers per game, were held to just seven on 28% shooting.
In the second half, Wake Forest shot just 21.4% from deep, making only three from long range.
Duke’s perimeter defense was active, contested shots consistently and took away open looks almost all game long. Much of that was a result of Duke’s masterful performance in switching off ball screens.
It prevented Wake from slipping off the screens for dives to the hoop, or step backs for open threes.
Additionally, freshman 7-footer Mark Williams allowed perimeter defenders to stick with their man and not help off when the Deacons did attack the basket.
Though Williams finished with just two blocks in the game, he altered shots all night long, making it difficult for the Demon Deacons to score on a consistent basis. Wake Forest did managed to post 26 points in the paint, but none came easily.
Ultimately, that effort inside the paint was extremely disruptive to Wake’s ability to get clean shots on the perimeter, where they prefer to do their damage.
“We changed our ball screen defense a week ago to better suit this team,” Krzyzewski said. “And our kids have really done that well.
“Our perimeter is small in height, but we’re pretty quick. That’s where Wendell (Moore Jr.) with his size, if a team goes small, he can actually go to the four also. We did that just a little bit tonight.”
Freshman DJ Steward, who recorded another outstanding performance on both ends of the floor – he posted two steals in the game, while also hounding shooters on the perimeter – knew stopping the three was critical for a victory.
“That was our focus coming in,” Steward said. “We know they have a lot of good shooters in Williamson, Antonio and Whitt. They’re gonna make shots eventually, but we just shut them down, pretty much.
“They take 25 threes a game. I mean we held them a little bit under, but they didn’t make as many threes as they’ve been making. I feel like we accomplished our goal in stopping them from getting too many threes.”
Duke’s defense forced just nine Wake Forest turnovers, despite aggressive pressure on the ball all game long. The focus was more about forcing the Demon Deacons into poor shots than turning them over.
However, when Duke did turn the Deacons over, they made it count. The Blue Devils posted 13 points off turnovers compared to Wake’s two points off six Duke turnovers.
While Duke’s defense was controlling the game, there offense was flourishing. The game was marked by balance, and classic Duke scoring runs that saw them go on a 12-0 first half run from 11:22 to the 7:19 mark. That run ultimately turned into Duke outscoring Wake Forest 28-13 over the final 11:22 of the opening half.
Duke held a 19 point lead at the half.
Matthew Hurt, Steward and Jaemyn Brakefield led the way for the Blue Devils in the half with 10, 8 and 7 points, respectively. Moore and Williams each added six points, while Jordan Goldwire scored five. Joey Baker also got in the scorers column in the first half with a 3-pointer.
“We had a great first half,” Hurt said. “I think we were up 19 at halftime. Coach just hounded on us to just keep getting better.”
Brakefield was a huge part to that success. His eight points came 3-of-4 shooting, but it wasn’t just about his points. He was active with four rebounds and two assists.
Krzyzewski praised Brakefield’s play, saying, “Jaemyn got that explosion.”
But it was Hurt who took the halftime message to heart. He scored 12 points in the second half on 5-of-5 shooting. In fact, he scored all 11 of Duke’s points from the start of the half to the 14:15 mark when Jeremy Roach scored on a jumper to push Duke ahead by 23 points, 58-35.
During that stretch, only four shots were taken by someone other than Hurt. The sophomore also scored Duke’s last points of the first half, giving him 14 straight for the Blue Devils.
Steward was in awe of his teammate’s performance.
“No, I have never played with a scorer like this,” he said when asked if he’s played alongside someone so offensively gifted. “He really doesn’t miss at all. It’s a lot of crazy shots, fadeaways.
“It’s pretty spectacular watching him when I’m in the game.”
Hurt’s explosive performance to start the second half helped Duke push its lead to as many as 29 points in the second half. Though he scored just one more point the remainder of the game, giving him 22 for the night, his presence on the court opened up opportunities for others.
Steward was one of those, as he scored 16 points on 7-of-12 shooting, including eight in the second half on 4-of-7 from the field. In addition to his point contributions, Steward tied for the team lead in rebounds with seven and was second with three assists.
Joey Baker was also feeling it in the second half, scoring nine points on 3-of-6 from 3-point range. He finished the game with 12 points. Moore also scored in double figures for the game with 11 points, while Williams added nine points, and Brakefield seven.
Overall, it was the second strong performance for Duke in as many games. Krzyzewski points to his team’s defense, and positive attitude as the culprits of their success.
“I think when you play that hard on the defensive end, you play better offense. You’re more physical, you run the offense harder. You can’t play that hard on defense and not play hard on offense.
“We’re getting contributions from everybody. Really good performance by our kids.”