Twenty-six games into the season, Mike Krzyzewski has a pretty good handle on his team’s tendencies.
Take, for instance, the end of the first half against North Carolina. Duke had begun the game playing near-perfect basketball, racing out to a 20-8 lead before the the game was six minutes old. There were ebbs and flows of momentum over the next several minutes, but the Blue Devils were still in possession of a double-digit lead, at 49-38, with 1:57 left until the break. Two missed shots, a turnover, a foul and three offensive rebounds for North Carolina followed, and the Tar Heels went into halftime with renewed confidence and energy, down just seven.
“We ended the first half bad, and Coach told us at halftime that when we end the first half bad, we usually start the second half off bad also,” Jahlil Okafor said. “He called it.”
The Tar Heels picked up where they had left off, and Duke’s lead was all gone within the first five minutes of the second half.
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“At the start of the second half, we missed three inside shots that you should hit,” Krzyzewski said, referring to missed layups by Amile Jefferson, Justise Winslow and Tyus Jones. “We started thinking about the miss, and they transition so well that – boom – they score. That’s what happened to us for a couple of weeks in January. Our defense wasn’t good, but I thought a lot of it had to do with our reaction to misses.
“Then we hunkered down, and in the last minute and 38 seconds to be able to tie it was great.”
No. 4 Duke (23-3, 10-3 ACC) did make its storybook comeback late to beat the Tar Heels 92-90 in overtime. That followed the Blue Devils’ tendency of playing their best basketball in big games. It’s the games against lesser-hyped teams without the bright lights – Wake Forest, N.C. State, Miami, Georgia Tech and Florida State – where Duke’s performances have been more uneven.
Human nature plays a role in that, undoubtedly, and Krzyzewski has acknowledged that several times this year. Saturday’s game against Clemson (15-11, 7-7) will again test Duke’s ability to move on from a big win and use its indisputable talent advantage to take care of business.
“If you want to be really good all the time, human nature is your biggest opponent because you’re up, you’re excited, you’re a little bit worn out. How do you stay consistent during those things that happen to human beings?” Krzyzewski said after the Georgia Tech game, a close 72-66 win. “They’re happening to eight kids, four of them are freshmen and for the very first time.”