Duke played far from its best game of the season back on Feb. 11 when it survived to beat Clemson 64-62 at Cameron Indoor Stadium.
The Blue Devils did display toughness, both mentally and physically, in that win over the Tigers though.
They’ll probably need both traits again when they face Clemson in an ACC tournament second-round game on Wednesday (2 p.m., WRAL/ESPN) at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center.
To win the ACC championship, No. 5 seed Duke (23-8) must win four games in four days, beginning with a win over No. 12 seed Clemson (17-14). It’s a tough task for the No. 14-ranked Blue Devils and it’s fitting that Clemson is the first step given the nature of their first meeting last month.
That first game between Clemson and Duke tipped off a few minutes shy of 40 hours after Duke defeated rival North Carolina 86-78 at Cameron on a Saturday afternoon. After the Clemson game, Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski admitted his team didn’t have the same energy level to play Clemson and added that there’s no way the Blue Devils could be expected to.
“Look, Thursday’s game (against UNC) was huge,” Krzyzewski said that day. “If you ask anybody in the gym who was at Thursday’s game, ‘How do they feel?’ they would say, ‘I feel different than I did Thursday.’ ‘Are you emotional yet?’ ‘I am not as emotional.’ It is because you are a human being. Basically, in order to win at times, you cannot be normal. You cannot be normal.
You have to fight human nature. It is not about attitude or being ready to play. Our kids are ready to play. It is just about how much you have in the tank. It is not so much always physical stuff, but it is emotional. In fact, most of the time it is emotional, and that is the toughest tire.”
Clemson shot just 17.9 percent in the first half, making a woeful 5 of 28 shots. Duke shot 37 percent, considerably better than the Tigers but not up to its season norm.
Still, the Blue Devils seemed to be in control of the game with a 29-18 halftime lead.
But in the second half, Clemson found plenty of driving lanes to the basket as Duke’s defense wasn’t as effective. The Tigers shot 56 percent in the second half, making 17 of 30 shots.
The only Duke player effective on offense was 6-6, 202-pound sophomore guard Luke Kennard, who scored 25 points on 7 of 16 shooting. No other Duke player reached double figures as the rest of the Blue Devils made only 14 of 34 shots (41 percent). Junior guard Grayson Allen made just 2 of 10.
Behind 23 points from sophomore guard Shelton Mitchell and 15 from sophomore forward Elijah Thomas, the Tigers had the ball down by two points with six seconds to play needing to go the length of the court.
Duke double-teamed Mitchell both when the Tigers in-bounded the ball on the baseline with six seconds left and at mid-court two seconds later after Kennard’s near steal. Though Mitchell still got the ball, senior guard Matt Jones contested his 3-pointer that was nowhere near the rim as time expired.
After Clemson beat N.C. State 75-61 Tuesday in the first ACC tournament game ever played in New York City, Mitchell sounded ready for another shot at the Blue Devils.
“I just think at Duke, we missed a couple of opportunities to get the lead,” Mitchell said. “They’re a great team. They space the floor. They have a lot of weapons.”
Duke’s weapons start with Kennard, the first-team, all-ACC guard who leads Duke with a 20.1 scoring average. Freshman forward Jayson Tatum averages 16 points while Allen has scored 14.5 points per game.
That win over Clemson was part of a seven-game winning streak Duke ripped off through the middle of its ACC schedule. Since then, though, the Blue Devils lost three of their final four games with the three losses coming on the road at Syracuse, Miami and North Carolina.
None of those games were decided until the final minutes, just like that win over Clemson last month.
“We played them tough up there in Cameron, lost by two,” Clemson senior forward Jaron Blossomgame said. “I’m definitely excited for Round 2.”
Duke figures to be in a better mental and physical state this time around.
No. 5 Duke vs. No. 12 Clemson
When: 2 p.m. Wednesday
TV: ESPN, WRAL