As the pregame clock ticked to under 25 seconds, Jahlil Okafor was the only Blue Devil left on the court.
He shot a free throw. It missed. Another. Same result. Finally, just before the buzzer sounded for the flags to come on the court for the national anthem, Okafor’s third attempt went in.
Down the stretch of No. 4 Duke’s 77-73 loss at No. 8 Notre Dame, Okafor had four free throw attempts with after the game was tied at 69. He went 1-for-4.
“I've just been a poor free throw shooter for the majority of the season,” Okafor said when asked if end-of-game free throws are any tougher. Okafor entered the game making 57.9 percent of his attempts from the charity stripe. Wednesday night, he went 2-for-7.
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Meanwhile, Notre Dame’s Jerian Grant, the other main contender in the ACC Player of the Year race, put on an end-of-game clinic.
With Notre Dame (20-2, 8-1) holding a 71-70 lead, Grant had the ball at the top of the key. The shot clock was winding down, and Tyus Jones poked the ball away from him.
Grant recovered, and with about a second left, put up a soft floater that kissed in. That gave him a game-high 23 points, and the Fighting Irish had a 73-70 lead.
“He made this unbelievable play,” Jones said. “We got the deflection. We weren't able to come up with the loose ball. He just hit an unbelievable shot.”
Next possession, same situation. Shot clock winding down, Grant started posting up Cook at the foul line. He turned around with about two seconds left – and fired a pass to the right corner, where a wide-open Steve Vasturia knocked down the open 3. Notre Dame led 76-72 with 21.3 seconds remaining.
Tyus Jones’s man, Demetrius Jackson, cut behind him from the perimeter toward the basket as Jones had his eyes on Grant. Matt Jones left Vasturia in the corner to cover for Tyus’s mistake, and Tyus didn’t rotate over to cover the now-open Vasturia.
“We should not have left Vasturia,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “There's two seconds, you have to make Grant take a two-point shot, which we were, and we left him, and the kid hit a huge shot.”
That last assist gave Grant a career-high 12 for the game, giving him his second double-double of the year.
The Joyce Center was sold out for the first top-10 matchup at Notre Dame in almost 12 years. The top two ACC teams in scoring put on a show – an antidote for the ugly play that has plagued much of college basketball this season.
Krzyzewski said, in as many words, that this loss will reek of missed opportunities: Specifically, he pointed to Duke’s 10-for-20 mark from the free throw line and just nine points off of 13 offensive rebounds.
“They played winning basketball, and I thought we played winning basketball,” Krzyzewski said. “But we've got to cash in on the opportunities that are free and the opportunities that are close.”
The atmosphere in the locker room after the game was markedly different than it was after losses to N.C. State and Miami.
“We did things that we could have won the game, and maybe should have won the game,” Tyus said. “It hurts because we didn't. Against Miami and N.C. State, we didn't play well. But tonight, we were playing well, had the lead most of the game.”
For a stretch in the second half, it looked like Duke (17-3, 5-3) would come away with another win on the road against a ranked team. Point guard Jones, renowned for his ability to stay poised in big moments, took over at the start of the second half.
Jones, who scored just two points on four shots in the first half, quickly poured in 12 in the first eight minutes of the second.
Duke led 41-39 when Jones started his run, scoring nine of the team’s next 14 points. Back-to-back makes twice gave Duke the lead, and his first 3-pointer extended it to 63-53, capping a 12-3 run.
The Fighting Irish didn’t just roll over, though. Immediately after Duke went up by double digits, Notre Dame started a 14-2 run, with Grant setting up a Demetrius Jackson 3 that forced Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski to call timeout with the score 65-61 halfway through the second.
Krzyzewski was forced to call another one after the next Notre Dame basket, a Jackson drive in transition, that brought the crowd to its feet and made it a one-possession game. Zach Auguste tied it on Notre Dame’s next possession.
An Okafor lay-in ended the run, tying the game at 67 with just over five minutes to play. Oakfor and Grant traded baskets, keeping the score knotted at 69 with 3:48 left.
The road doesn’t get any easier for Duke, as the Blue Devils will travel to undefeated No. 2 Virginia on Saturday.