Despite all measures taken to spark talented but struggling Duke, the Blue Devils still stared at a late 10-point deficit Saturday at Wake Forest.
Sophomore Luke Kennard’s shooting helped pull the Blue Devils out of their funk late and heretofore absent sturdy defense produced, arguably, the season’s most important win so far.
Kennard’s 34 points, including a game-winning 3-pointer with 6.6 seconds to play, completed a stunning rally that delivered Duke an 85-83 win over Wake Forest at Joel Coliseum.
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“We believed that we were going to win the game,” Kennard said. “We said that we were going to win and we all believed in that. That was big to see, especially with the younger guys. Our leaders were poised and calm and we had great, great leadership. We got some stops when we needed to and we hit big shots.”
The nation’s preseason No. 1-ranked team, Duke entered Saturday having lost three of its previous four games and was winless on the road. Though still not coaching the team following Jan. 6 back surgery, Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski called the team to his house earlier in the week and dressed them down. According to an ESPN report, he barred them from using their locker room at Cameron Indoor Stadium and forbade them from wearing Duke gear in public.
With less than four minutes to play on Saturday, it didn’t look like that tried-and-true Krzyzewski tactic had made any difference because Wake Forest led 81-71.
But Kennard, who scored just four points during a foul-plagued first half, simply wouldn’t let the Blue Devils go away as he didn’t miss a shot in the second half.
He hit a 3-pointer and, after a Wake Forest offensive foul, drilled a deep two to cut the deficit in half.
Keyshawn Woods nailed a 16-foot jump shot for Wake Forest but Kennard answered with a 3-pointer at 1:49 to slice Wake’s lead to 83-79.
Duke forced the Demon Deacons into a shot clock violation after Woods airballed a 3-pointer.
The Blue Devils worked to find an open shot, with Grayson Allen draining a 3-pointer with 52.5 seconds left leaving Wake Forest up 83-82.
Wood misfired on a contested 3-pointer with 23 seconds left, setting the stage for Kennard’s 3-pointer with 6.6 left that gave Duke an 85-83 lead.
Wake Forest had a chance to tie the game but Bryant Crawford’s running, contested, 15-foot shot from the right side missed with one second left.
Duke allowed Wake Forest to score on just one of its final five possessions of the game to steal the win.
“We didn’t give up straight-line drives,” said Duke acting head coach Jeff Capel, who lead the team despite battling the flu. “That was the first thing. Our talk was better. Our ball-screen defense was better and then we were able to contest shots in our first-shot defense. And we were able to get rebounds.”
None of those things were true very often over the game’s first 36 minutes. The Demon Deacons (12-9, 3-6) shot 47 percent despite missing four of their final six shots, including the last three.
But when Duke absolutely had to have stops, it got them.
“That was huge,” Duke senior forward Amile Jefferson said, ““The ability to continuously get stops and not get rattled and keep playing. Matt (Jones) did a great job of leading us in our huddles making sure that guys stayed poised and stayed hungry. We kept fighting and we kept chipping away at it.”
After Duke freshman Harry Giles rebounded Woods’ missed 3-pointer, Duke called timeout with 15 seconds left. The ball was going to wind up in Kennard’s hands.
“We felt like he would be open on a curl or something,” Capel said. “Certainly it wasn’t that we were looking for a 3. But that’s where the ball was going. Our guys did a great job of executing that.”
Kennard hit nothing but net as he drilled the 3-pointer from the baseline to give Duke’s its first lead since the 11:38 mark of the first half.
“We drew up a play and we executed it the way it was drawn,” Kennard said. “...Our bigs are great screeners and they do a good job of getting the guards open. I ended up having some space and I just tried to knock it down and it went in.”
Having already lost ACC road games to Virginia Tech, Florida State and Louisville, Duke added to its woes by blowing a late lead to lose 84-82 to N.C. State at home last Monday. A loss to Wake, ahead of Monday’s trip to No. 14 Notre Dame, would have left the Blue Devils out of the national rankings and scrambling to save its season.
It looked bad when Wake Forest shot 50 percent in the first half and committed just four turnovers to build a 42-32 lead. The Blue Devils had two extended stretches without a made field goal and finished at just 35.5 percent at half.
Kennard took just four first-half shots because he was saddled with two fouls. In the second half, he was determined to produce more positive plays for his team.
“I was inward,” Kennard said. “I wanted to change that in the second half and just be all about what’s going on around us and not let anything affect the way that I play. I thought we fought. I thought we let out. We were free. We had freedom and our defense was huge. We made some big stops.”
Now Duke heads to Notre Dame, looking to win back-to-back games for just the second time in ACC play so far this season.
They were wearing Duke gear in public again on Saturday and they left Joel Coliseum with a good bit of swagger as well.
“We needed a game like today to really believe,” Jones said. “We needed to go out there and show it to ourselves. We needed a reminder to show up. Winning this game reminded us that we can do this if we fight and we play together.”
Contact Steve Wiseman: firstname.lastname@example.org, 919-419-6671