Eleven days ago, the college basketball world was writing off Duke basketball. Tonight, the Blue Devils completed a four game win streak with a dominant 85-71 victory over Syracuse.
Now, the buzz around the Duke basketball program feels like all is right in the world of college hoops once again.
This Duke team still has a way to go if they hope to complete the miraculous turnaround and earn a spot in the NCAA Tournament, but the vibe around the program is warning the doubters.
“Just tired of losing,” freshman Jeremy Roach said when asked what has sparked Duke’s winning streak and improved play. “It’s real simple. Just getting tired of losing.
“Just digging down on the defensive end. That’s really been the key for us. The last four games we’ve just been dialed in on the defensive end, locked in on the scouting reports and our matchups and our personnel. That’s been the biggest thing throughout this run.”
Duke was locked in on Monday, all right. The Blue Devils started throwing haymakers right from the tip-off, reminiscent of their start on Saturday against Virginia.
By the first media timeout, Duke had already extended its lead to seven points, scoring 13 in the first 4:12. But unlike their start against Virginia, it wasn’t Matthew Hurt hitting a barrage of 3-pointers.
Instead, it was freshman center Mark Williams asserting his presence in the paint. The opening play of the game, just nine seconds in, was an alley-oop pass from DJ Steward to Williams. Syracuse responded quickly, tying the game up at two.
But that was the last time they responded quickly to anything Duke threw at them the rest of the night.
In fact, the full starting five of Steward, Roach, Williams, Hurt and Wendell Moore Jr., were bringing the fight to Syracuse in a way that stunned them, and broke them. Though Hurt didn’t score his first basket until the 15:03 mark of the first half, he had already accumulated two assists.
Moore connected on Duke’s first 3-pointer of the game just 1:09 into the game, and he too was distributing the basketball at a high rate early on.
In fact, Duke’s ball movement was dissecting the Syracuse zone with relative ease. The Orange, who looked slow and unathletic in the zone, was leaving shooters open and driving lanes clear. Add to it the over-the-top game where Duke’s guards just fed the ball to Williams over the much smaller Syracuse lineup, and everything looked easy for the Blue Devils.
“First of all, it started on the defensive end,” Roach said. “That kind of got us going on the offensive end.
“Just finding a rhythm. We got a couple early stops, so that kind of got our offense going. We saw the ball go in, so we got in a quick rhythm early in the game. We just kept it going throughout the game.”
His coach, Mike Krzyzewski was beaming with pride for his players. That pride is not just coming based on the win, but rather how they’ve gotten there. The team has stayed focused, and taken he and his staff’s coaching and turned it into progress.
On Monday, part of that was mastering the game plan. They did that and more.
“We had 27 assists,” Krzyzewski said. “We got Mark involved right away. Our guys threw those lobs, and Mark had his best game – he had 18 and 11.
“The freshman backcourt had 14 assists. Great leadership by Wendell and J-Gold. And then Matt was just solid. Matt didn’t have to carry us. He was just solid.”
Those 27 assists Krzyzewski refers to came on 34 made baskets. That translates to assists on 79.4% of Duke’s made baskets. In fact, Duke had five players with four assists or more in the game. Steward and Roach led the way with seven apiece, while Hurt added five, and Moore and Jordan Goldwire contributed four apiece.
The Blue Devils’ first half was performance was bordering the absurd, as they connected on 62.5% (20-of-32) of their shots from the field, including 55.6% (10-of-18) from 3-point range. Roach was a perfect 4-of-4 in the half from deep, scoring all 14 of his points in the first half before becoming a distributor in the second.
Steward connected on 3-of-6 from deep for 13 of his game-high 21 points. Then there was Hurt, who made 2-of-4, on his way to 10 of his 15 points. Duke simply could not miss in the half, and it resulted in a 22-point first half lead.
While the shots weren’t falling at the same clip in the second half, they turned to Williams around the rim. And he dominated the Orange. He scored 10 second half points in 14 minutes of action. His dominance wasn’t relegated to just scoring, either, as he owned the glass, pulling down six of his career high 11 rebounds. By game’s end, he had career highs in points and boards, scoring 18 points to go along with his rebounds.
“We went to him right away,” Krzyzewski said of Williams. “The zone, for him, is better to attack, because you don’t really have one guy on him. He can (get) position. Although, (Quincy) Guerrier is really an outstanding player and rebounder, he’s not as big as (Virginia’s Jay) Huff. Just different matchup and growth experience. He really came today.”
One of the biggest highlights of the night came midway through the first half when Goldwire through an alley-oop lob from half court to Williams, who caught it and flushed it. Had there been fans inside Cameron Indoor Stadium, the place surely would have erupted.
“That one play where he ran the court was huge,” Krzyzewski said. “Reminded me coaching the US team where they just eat up the court. They don’t take that many steps, they eat up the court. On that play, he extended. That was a big time play.”
Following the game, Williams just nonchalantly laughed off the notion he had done something amazing. He simply just didn’t want to mess it up.
“J-Gold got it, I ran down the floor and he saw me and threw a great pass and I just finished the play,” Williams said mater of factly, trying to hide his smile. “I can’t mess up his assist, and I can’t mess up a dunk.”
Despite Duke’s dominance, there were some moments where the Orange showed some resistance. Syracuse did try and fight back, putting together an 8-0 scoring run in the first half, and another 10-0 run in the second.
Each time, Duke responded and held them off.
“We weathered two storms that we knew they were going to hit us with with their press,” Krzyzewski said. “In the first half it went from 22 to 14. Then we were able to get it back to 18 and then after the first TV timeout, they hit us again. You worry about us being tired and emotionally spent, and them being good, and instead, after turning it over a couple times, we started really breaking the press to score. It gave us our mojo back again.”
In the end, Duke’s 14-point win doesn’t tell the story. In fact, that score doesn’t represent how much the Blue Devils dominated the night.
Now, Duke must do what they did on Sunday when they quickly put the Virginia win behind them, and move this victory to the backs of their minds.
There’s still work to do, and they’re well aware of that fact.
“We just stuck together with it all season,” Roach said. “We knew our time was going to come. We’ve still got to keep working and just getting better and just piling on wins.”