Arizona outlasts Duke 72-66

lkeeley@newsobserver.comNovember 29, 2013 

— Shots that normally fall for Duke rimmed in and out. The difference in Arizona’s 72-66 win over the Blue Devils was really as simple as that.

“The offense was fine, everybody got the shots that they usually take,” Tyler Thornton said. “The offense will take care of itself throughout the year.”

Indeed, No. 6 Duke (6-2) entered the game with the most efficient offense in the country, and the Blue Devils didn’t play poorly on that end of the floor. For the second straight game, Duke hit 43.1 percent of its shots from the field, the same as in the Alabama game, which is a season-low. That’s more a reflection, though, of how readily Duke has been scoring points this season.

The difference in the game came during the opening sequence of the second half. It took the No. 4 Wildcats until the 13-minute, 25-second mark – nearly seven minutes – to hit their first shot from the field, a Rondae Hollis-Jefferson dunk. During that stretch, though, Duke’s lead had only increased by one point, to 43-39.

It was a missed opportunity.

“Yeah, we definitely did,” Quinn Cook said when asked if that was the case. “Some shots that we took went out, and that could have pushed the lead up.”

Instead, Arizona (7-0) responded with big, timely shots of its own. Back-to-back 3-pointers by Aaron Gordon and Nick Johnson tied the game at 45, and the next basket, a Brandon Ashley layup, gave the Wildcats a lead they wouldn’t relinquish.

All five Wildcats starters finished in double figures, as Johnson led them with 15 points on 4-of-10 shooting. Ashley had 13 on 6-of-8 shooting (foul trouble limited him in the second half), and Kaleb Tarczewski, Gordon and T.J. McConnell had 10 points apiece.

The Gordon 3 cut a Duke four-point lead down, and the Johnson 3 was off balance at the end of the shot clock. Those were the two shots Duke had no answer for, as many of their looks appeared good, but didn’t go.

That was certainly the case for Jabari Parker, who saw his 20-point game streak end at seven games. He had 19 points, shooting 7-of-21 from the field, with three rebounds, two blocks, a steal and five turnovers as well. Like the rest of the team, his shot selection wasn’t the problem.

“Jabari, he got the shots that he normally takes,” Thornton said. “He just didn’t hit all of them.”

There were many positives to take from the loss. This isn’t a typical Duke team that is dominant early – this is just the first time since the 1999-2000 season that the Blue Devils have lost more than one November game. The Blue Devils returned two starters, Cook and Rasheed Sulaimon, who is stuck in an extended slump.

Offensively, they revolve around Rodney Hood and Parker, neither of whom played for Duke last year. The hope, of course, is that the Blue Devils get better with time and experience. Early in the season, they’ve showed signs of moving that direction.

Hood bounced back well from a foul-plagued performance against Alabama to lead Duke in points and rebounds, 21 on 8-of-14 shooting and eight, respectively. Duke’s defense, which struggled last week against East Carolina and Vermont, was much improved in the two games at Madison Square Garden.

The Wildcats have one of the bigger, more talented frontcourts in the country. Tarczewski, the starting center, is a 7-footer, and there’s the 6-8 Ashley and 6-9 Gordon as well. Even with that size advantage, Duke was able to grab 10 offensive rebounds, two more than the Wildcats. The Blue Devils also forced more turnovers (16 for the Wildcats against their 11), and Arizona’s 48.9 shooting percentage was also slightly below their season average.

“We’re a tough team,” Cook said. “We have some tough guys. Size doesn’t really matter to us. We wanted to play tougher than them. They hit some tough, tough, tough shots. And they hit some big free throws.”

The Wildcats had a 63-53 lead with 2:24 remaining, and the Blue Devils were able to cut that to five, with 1:46 left. That was as close as the Blue Devils would get, as there wasn’t enough time left with the Wildcats hitting their free throws.

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