For the first time this year, Duke found itself in a close game, down at halftime and having an opportunity to either put away a less-talented foe or crumble under the game pressure.
And the Blue Devils responded, getting hot from 3-point range in their 79-71 win over Virginia Commonwealth Friday night.
It wasn’t always pretty, but it will be a nice building block for this young, work-in-progress team.
“It’s so different every year. And it’s really different this year because you don’t have (Jahlil) Okafor – he knows he is that good,” coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “So we have to develop this. I don’t know what our record is going to be, but if we stick to it, I think we could be good.”
Grayson Allen, who lost his starting spot after his poor performance against Kentucky, clearly took his mistakes to heart and made adjustments. Instead of just barreling down the lane hoping for the best, he pulled up for jump shots, passed and hit 3s. And when he drove, he was driving to score instead of just hoping to draw a foul. Allen finished with a career-high 30 points – 15 of them in the second half.
“Once he gets going downhill, he has a great way of initiating contact,” Rams guard Melvin Johnson said of Allen. “He has a great frame for that, too.”
Allen’s 3 with 6:30 left on the clock gave Duke a 68-58 lead, essentially the dagger. That shot was part of a game-changing 15-3 Duke run.
“The response that Grayson had from Kentucky is huge. I think it’s spectacular, to be quite frank with you,” Krzyzewski said. “A lot of kids would question themselves, and he never did.
“We have a standard on our team that we tell each other the truth. So, you confront it. He didn’t play well against Kentucky. He didn’t have a good look, and he didn’t adjust. That was his first big-time start, too. It’s not like Grayson is this combat veteran. So I was hard on him, but honest. And he’s fine.”
That was the best news for Duke, that Allen could respond without losing confidence. There will still be plenty of areas to critique in the day-after film session, though.
Turnovers because of sloppy ball handling and bad passes remained. After bemoaning Kentucky’s 17 points off of Duke’s 16 turnovers last game, the Blue Devils coughed up the ball 14 more times to the Rams (and not because of their full-court press – havoc appears to be a thing of the past).
Derryck Thornton earned his first start of the year at point guard, but the offensive flow still left much to be desired. Thornton had a nice stat line individually, though – 19 points on 63.6 percent shooting from the floor, four assists, three turnovers and two steals. For the second straight game, Krzyzewski praised his intangibles, this time his look and lack of fear (against Kentucky, it was his fight).
Marshall Plumlee and Amile Jefferson, the senior duo that played so well against Kentucky, struggled mightily against VCU, especially on the defensive end, as the Rams racked up 46 points in the paint. This was an unexpected issue after neutralizing the significantly more talented Kentucky frontcourt.
And the Blue Devils will need to shoot better than 55.9 percent from the free-throw line (19-for-34) going forward.
Up next for Duke (2-1) is a Sunday 1 p.m. date with Georgetown (1-2), which dispatched Wisconsin, 71-61, in the first game of the 2K Classic Friday night.