NEW YORK — Three days after one of their worst defensive performances in recent memory, Duke came into Madison Square Garden and put on a much stronger performancefor the first 20 minutes. They closed the game out strong, too in the 74-64 win over Alabama.
But in the middle, there was another familiar problem that persisted. Duke had a double-digit lead in the second half, but instead of closing the opponent out, the Blue Devils backed off, letting Alabama back into the game.
Head coach Mike Krzyzewski, though, abruptly left the press conference when asked about the 12-0 Alabama run that cut into an 18-point lead for Duke.
"Its too bad you couldnt give credit to someone who played really well tonight," he said. "Where that does happen, when a team doesnt fold, is spectacular. A lot of teams in that situation would lose a game. I guess we had enough killer instinct to survive and win by 10 points. Im very, very proud of my team.
"Happy Thanksgiving," he said, sarcastically, as he left the podium.
First, the good: The 74-64 victory over Alabama (3-2) featured 16 Crimson Tide turnovers, and Alabama shot 40.4 percent from the floor.The No. 6 Blue Devils (6-1) had forced just six turnovers last time out. They had that number matched within the first eight minutes of Wednesdays game.
Mike Krzyzewski had said Dukes performance in Sundays 91-90 escape over Vermont was unacceptable, and he shook up the Blue Devils starting lineup as a result. Out were Amile Jefferson and Rasheed Sulaimon and in were senior captains Tyler Thornton and Josh Hairston. The message was clear: play defense, or dont play at all.
"Since Kansas, we havent been playing like a Duke team defensively," Hood said. "Its a program game, its about fighting for the program," he said about the game Wednesday night.
The Blue Devils came out with so much focus on the defensive end that their offense, the most efficient in the country, took a while to click. Duke started 1-of-11 from the floor and found themselves in a 12-5 hole early. But Alabama had six turnovers in that stretch, thanks in large part to the Blue Devils increased communication, with all five guys often chattering on defensive possessions.
Duke has too much offensive firepower to stay off for long, and that proved true during a 15-3 run that gave the Blue Devils their first lead, 17-15, with 8 minutes, 40 seconds remaining in the first half. After that slow shooting start, Duke made eight of its 10 shots.
Even as the offense picked up, the Blue Devils stayed focused on defense. Four different players Sulaimon, Hairston, Jefferson and Matt Jones drew a charge in the the first half. Charges, long a Duke defensive staple, have been harder to come by, thanks to new rules preventing defenders from sliding in front of drivers.
It was a failed attempt to draw a charge, though, that resulted in Rodney Hoods second foul with 11:30 left in the half. He sat until the second half.
It was Jones who came off the bench to spark the Blue Devils offense, hitting back-to-back 3s to start the Duke run. The Blue Devils later went on a 9-2 run to end the half with a 33-22 advantage. Alabama had 11 first half turnovers and went six minutes in between baskets.
Then came the bad: Duke had an 18-point lead, 46-28, with 15:21 left in the game. Instead of keeping their edge and effectively closing out the game, the Blue Devils backed off just like they had against Vermont and East Carolina, too. Alabama went on a 12-0 run to pull within 46-40 in exactly a three-minute span.
The run featured a Duke timeout after a Sulaimon turnover and subsequent Quinn Cook foul on the Trevor Releford shot attempt. Sulaimon went to sit down in a chair with the rest of the starters, but Krzyzewski kicked him out and sent Thornton to the scorers table to replace him. Hood, who had picked up his third and fourth fouls quickly, came in shortly thereafter. It wasnt the redshirt sophomore transfer from Mississippi States best night, facing an SEC foe: Hood finished with eight points on 3-of-8 shooting, one rebound, and three steals and turnovers apiece in 21 minutes. He and Hairston had both fouled out with more than three minutes left, but reserve forwards Marshall Plumlee, Alex Murphy and Semi Ojeleye did not see the floor, as Duke went with a four-guard lineup.
Jabari Parker, who had an uncharacteristic four first-half turnovers, stopped the bleeding for Duke with a strong drive through a foul for a three point play. He scored eight of Dukes next 10 points.
A sweet move by Parker in the paint again ended an Alabama run, this one 7-0, that erased a double-digit Duke lead. Parker finished with 27 points on 9-of-12 shooting with eight rebounds. He is the first freshman since Kevin Durant to score at least 20 points in his first seven games.
The Blue Devils return to the floor Friday at 6 p.m. to face undefeated No. 4 Arizona, which knocked off Drexel to advance to the NIT Season Tip-Off championship game.