DURHAM — There was a time, Jabari Parker said after Duke had held on for an 83-74 win against East Carolina, that the thought of not advancing to New York City crept into his mind. When asked when, exactly, he came to that realization, he said it was when the Pirates closed the gap to three points.
That happened for the first time in the second half with 10 minutes, 26 seconds left on the clock. And East Carolina was last within three points with 2 minutes, 52 seconds remaining.
“Yeah, I had that in my mind for a little bit,” Parker said of the NIT Season Tip-Off setup that would have kept Duke home for Thanksgiving with a loss. “But I made sure that it stayed away from my mind. Always think positive and think we’re going to come out with a W.”
And that’s what the No.6 Blue Devils (4-1) did, thanks in large part to two blocks from Parker on back-to-back ECU shot attempts with about two minutes remaining. The second swat resulted in Rodney Hood drawing a foul on the other end of the floor, and his two free throws put Duke up 77-70. That was the first time in 10 minutes of game clock that the Blue Devils had more than a two-possession lead over the Pirates (4-1).
“Jabari’s full-court play really kind of broke the ice for us,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said.
“We’ve all been in situations where, for moments, you’re not as confident about something that you normally do in a confident manner. And then you need to break through it. Our guys were able to break through it while they were playing, instead of talking about it after the game and congratulating East Carolina on a win.”
Nothing early indicated that the game would be so close. Duke made its first 11 shots and raced out to a 23-9 lead. Duke’s first miss didn’t come until nearly nine minutes into the game, when Semi Ojeleye missed a 3-point attempt.
But the Pirates closed the first half on a 6-0 run to cut the deficit to 43-32, with the Blue Devils missing four shots and committed a turnover in that span. The Pirates then began the second half on a 7-2 run and answered an Amile Jefferson dunk with an Akeem Richmond 3 to climb within five points at 47-42 at the 17-minute, 31-second mark. When Richmond hit another 3 at the 11:33 mark, that made it a two-possession game at 57-53, and the game would stay that tight until the 1:40 mark, when Hood hit his free throws.
The Pirates came out in a zone for most of the second half, denying Duke the driving lanes they wanted. That is, until Parker and Hood just decided to take them anyway.
“We chose to keep attacking the rim even though they went 2-3,” Parker said, “And stopped us from doing what we usually do.”
Hood scored 21 of his 30 points in the second-half, shooting 8-of-10 from the field, and, most importantly, 12-of-12 from the free-throw line. As a team, the Blue Devils shot 77.4 percent from the line, much improved over their mark against Kansas (.571).
“We practiced it more, but you’ve got to be careful not to talk too much about it,” Krzyzewski said of free throws. “You don’t want it to become a thing. But they have shot a lot more. Sometimes when you lose a game like that, I thought that game, a big reason we lost was free throw shooting, it hurts. So, you practice it more.”
After the game, Krzyzewski wasn’t down on his team, which fell victim to the Pirates smaller line-up, which drove through the Duke defense at will during stretches in the second half (and then collected 13 offensive rebounds, 35 percent of the available misses. The Blue Devils wanted to drive, too, (and did in the end), but finishing around the rim was a problem, Krzyzewski said. He was impressed with ECU and proud of the way Duke finished.
“They came back last night when they were down, they’re used to doing that,” Hood said of the Pirates. “They’re playing with free money, they’re playing on our home court, no pressure on them. All the pressure is on us.”
And Duke passed the test, advancing to face Alabama next Wednesday in Madison Square Garden.