No. 21 Duke not only vanquished a troublesome rival Monday night, the Blue Devils further tightened their grasp on exactly what kind of team they still can be.
From losing three of four games to nearly fall out of the AP Top 25, the previously No. 1-ranked Blue Devils earned their second ACC road win in three days with a satisfying 84-74 win at No. 20 Notre Dame.
“I think we’re growing up, I think we’re becoming tougher,” Duke acting head coach Jeff Capel said. “To be able to go on the road the past three days in two sold-out, hostile environments and to be able to get wins speaks volumes about our guys.”
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Duke rallied from a 10-point deficit to win 85-83 at Wake Forest on Saturday. On Monday they handed Notre Dame its third consecutive loss. This is the same Notre Dame program that had defeated Duke four times over the last two seasons.
The Blue Devils (17-5, 5-4 in ACC) stopped Notre Dame’s hex by holding the Irish to 42.9 percent shooting, including a staggeringly low 26.9 percent in the first half.
They did it by relying, mostly, in a strong starting five: Luke Kennard, Jayson Tatum, Matt Jones, Grayson Allen and Amile Jefferson.
Jones (38 minutes), Tatum (37) and Allen (36) were Duke’s iron men. Kennard (32) and Jefferson (31) had their minutes cut short only because they both fouled out before three minutes remained.
When they were gone, Duke turned to freshmen Harry Giles and Frank Jackson for the game’s final minutes.
After playing without an injured Tatum for the season’s first eight games, Allen for a loss at Virginia Tech because he was suspended for tripping an opposing player and an injured Jefferson for road losses at Florida State and Louisville this month, the Blue Devils are starting to benefit from cohesion.
“I think we are understanding each other,” Capel said. “We’ve had such a disjointed season with guys out with injuries. This is the first time we’ve had a little bit of continuity. Hopefully we can keep that. We’ve become tougher, more together, understanding how much we need each other.”
Duke is still missing one important piece, of course. Capel is the Blue Devils’ acting coach while Mike Krzyzewski recovers from Jan. 6 back surgery.
The Blue Devils have gone 4-3 without their Hall of Fame coach on the sidelines during games. The timetable for his return suggests that he could be back as soon as Duke’s next game, which is Saturday at home with Pittsburgh.
After that, Duke plays rival North Carolina at Cameron on Feb. 9 before welcoming Clemson to Durham on Feb. 11.
That’s a nice little three-game stretch at home for a team that has certainly gathered itself to gain traction once again.
Steve Wiseman: 919-419-6671; @stevewisemanNC