For most of the second half, Duke and Notre Dame were locked in a one-possession game. Both teams scored at will. But it was the Fighting Irish who made the more timely plays, whether that was grabbing a rebound or taking care of the ball. And in the end, it was a combination of those two – rebounding and avoiding turnovers – that gave Notre Dame the rare 95-91 win in Cameron Indoor Stadium.
The No. 9 Blue Devils (14-4, 3-2 ACC) have now lost two games in a row. While that might trigger memories of another two-game losing streak from last year, Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski was quick to point out that the two are in no way comparable.
“There’s nothing from last year,” Krzyzewski said. “We’re a different team. I said that even when Amile (Jefferson) was healthy. It’s a different year. We just have to fight and keep getting better.”
Last year, Krzyzewski had an ace up his sleeve with the switch to the 2-3 matchup zone defense. That gave a talented team a fresh start, and those Blue Devils only lost twice more en route to the NCAA title.
This year, the Blue Devils aren’t as talented, and they have no depth in the post. There will be no quick fixes.
Playing with just one true big man led to rebounding struggles against the similarly sized Fighting Irish. Notre Dame was able to extend possessions with 16 offensive rebounds. That led to 16 more shots for the Fighting Irish, which was significant in the tight game.
Guard Brandon Ingram isn’t a natural rebounder and the fact that he had four fouls with 17:14 left in the game limited his impact on the boards. It’s the second straight game that Ingram has had four fouls with an eternity left in the second half, a trend that needs to stop for Duke to start having success again. Ingram had to sit for nearly six minutes after his fourth foul.
“Obviously when he’s in the game, we’re better,” Krzyzewski said. “We have more of a chance than when he’s on the bench.”
An unburdened Ingram isn’t a cure-all for rebounding, though. Marshall Plumlee, who struggled against whomever Notre Dame had in the post, had nine rebounds. Luke Kennard had eight, and no other Duke player had more than four.
Two rebounding opportunities in particular cost the Blue Devils dearly at the end of a tight game. Duke had an 89-88 lead with 46 seconds remaining. Notre Dame reserve Bonzie Colson answered with a drive and three-point play to put the Irish back up with 36 seconds left.
A Matt Jones 3 on Duke’s next possession did not go – and it was taken early in the shot clock – and the rebound bounced off of Marshall Plumlee’s back before Steve Vasturia grabbed it.
It was again a two-point Notre Dame lead at 93-91 with 4.8 seconds left when Demetrius Jackson missed the front-end of a one-and-one free throw chance. But Zach Auguste came down with the rebound.
“Just grab the ball,” Krzyzewski said when asked what he wanted the Blue Devils to do differently on the boards. “Grab the ball. Just catch it. Catch it and then protect it.”
Three of Duke’s four losses, and both ACC losses to Clemson and Notre Dame, have been one-possession games in the final seconds. It’s not that the Blue Devils are playing terribly. Luke Kennard in particular had a career day, scoring 30 points on 10-of-15 shooting from the field, but he also had three untimely turnovers in the second half (noted Duke-killer Colson, an undersized forward who doesn’t even start, did him one better with a career-high 31). But there are enough little mistakes and ill-timed lapses to equal the difference between winning and losing.
“I don’t think we’ve played a 40-minute game this year,” Grayson Allen said.
“I thought our kids fought, and they tried their best.” Krzyzewski said. “It’s still a loss and a tough loss.”