After Duke’s 68-63 loss at Clemson, Mike Krzyzewski didn't want to talk about Duke’s final offensive play, which gave the Blue Devils a chance to tie the game. Instead, he pointed to two plays at the end of the first half.
With the shot clock off and Duke holding a 35-31 lead, Derryck Thornton brought the ball up and took an ill-advised 3 with eight seconds left in the half. He missed, and that left the Tigers with enough time to try their own final shot—that was a mistake within itself.
But then the magnitude of that mistake increased exponentially when Brandon Ingram fouled Jaron Blossomgame as he was racing up the sideline with 1.6 seconds left. That gave Ingram three fouls. And that became a big problem in the second half. Blossomgame did make both free throws to send the Tigers into the half down just 35-33.
“We not only missed a shot, but we gave them points and Brandon's third foul. It was the play of the game,” Krzyzewski said. “That play had an impact for the next 20 minutes.”
Ingram collected his fourth foul with 13:21 left in the second half. About three minutes later, and center Marshall Plumlee had collected foul Nos. 3 and 4, too. Duke had a 48-40 lead, but it’s hard for any team to keep a lead with no post players. Chase Jeter technically came in the game, and Clemson (11-6, 4-1 ACC) promptly went on a 7-0 run with the last three points coming via a Donte Grantham and-one finish through Jeter’s fifth foul.
The idea that No.9 Duke (14-3, 3-1) has no post depth was given an exclamation point with the play of Jeter, who racked up five fouls in four minutes (three in three minutes in the first half). When both Ingram and Plumlee are in foul trouble, there are no other options. Both Ingram and Plumlee returned to the game after Jeter fouled out as Duke was in the danger zone.
“We haven't had another big,” Krzyzewski said when asked about Plumlee’s importance. “Chase had a real rough night tonight. That's where you're hoping someone, a new guy might all of the sudden..”
Krzyzewski didn’t finish the thought, but he didn’t have to in order to get his point across. As bad as Jeter has been, clearly the Blue Devils do not consider redshirt sophomore Sean Obi or freshman Antonio Vrankovic viable options to even see the floor. In Duke’s four ACC games, those two scholarship post players have played a combined one minute.
“Our foul trouble, there is no answer to it,” Krzyzewski said. “We don't have alternatives. Those guys have to stay out of foul trouble.”
That is Duke’s reality while Amile Jefferson waits for his broken foot to heal: Play five guards and one center in some combination and hope for the best. And Krzyzewski reiterated that Jefferson will still be out “for a while.” He saw the doctor this week, but he still needs to progress to where he can walk without a boot before he can even think of playing basketball.
To their credit, the Blue Devils kept fighting until the end.
Clemson’s largest lead in the second half was 62-55 with 3:14 left in the game. Duke went on a 6-0 run, aided by two Clemson turnovers. Matt Jones stole the ball under Duke’s basket and drove the length of the court, and he made the lay-up through a foul. But Jones missed his free throw, and Duke still trailed 62-61 with 1:45 left.
Clemson center Landry Nnoko (12 points, 13 rebounds) was able to extend the Tigers’ next possession with an offensive rebound, and he eventually finished the possession with a lay-up. Grayson Allen drove strong to the basket at the other end to cut the deficit back to one at 64-63 with 35 seconds left.
Then the Tigers did what Duke couldn’t: properly execute an end-of-half play.
Clemson ran down the clock as Jordan Roper dribbled near the Tigers' bench. He started to make a move toward the lane, drawing in Duke’s defense, and Blossomgame cut to the basket undetected. He finished with a dunk to give Clemson a 66-63 lead with 13.3 seconds left.
Thornton again made a less-than-desirable decision as Duke’s point guard when he funneled the ball to Matt Jones in the left corner instead of going the other way to either Allen or Luke Kennard. Jones got a good look, though—he just air-balled it.
“I've hit that shot plenty of times this year, so I'm not making any excuses,” Jones said. “I just missed it.”
That didn’t lose Duke the game, though, not any more than the terrible end to the first half or the foul trouble. Duke will have to play smarter to pull out wins with its six-man rotation.
“We have a very limited team,” Krzyzewski said. “But not limited in desire or effort.”