Nobody was less effective on defense Saturday than Pat McCrory. The governor asked fans to stay off the roads and away from the Duke-N.C. State game, and raucous Wolfpack fans packed the place instead, a predictable response. If the request had come from ACC commissioner John Swofford, it might have been standing-room only.
If McCrory vs. State fans was a knockout, the basketball game was a TKO. An impressive end-to-end offensive battle between Grayson Allen and Cat Barber was derailed early in the second half when Barber came up limping. Neither team can afford to lose anyone. Duke had lost three games in a row, in part because of Amile Jefferson’s absence. A half-speed Barber left N.C. State even shorter.
So a dominant first half by N.C. State gave way to a hot-shooting second half by Duke, which came from 10 down to post an 88-78 win – a much-needed boost for the Blue Devils and a blow to N.C. State, which was hoping to build on its first ACC win and, for much of the game, looked like it would.
When healthy, Barber engaged in an entertaining contest of oneupmanship with Allen, reminiscent of Marcus Paige and T.J. Warren on this same floor. Allen had a 16-14 edge on Barber at the half, but N.C. State had a seven-point lead. For once – and perhaps the only time – State was the deeper team. The Wolfpack hit six 3-pointers in a row at one point, by four different players.
“That could have knocked us out,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “That could have been a fourth-round knockout.”
With almost a week to prepare, Duke installed – and used almost exclusively – a tweaked, extended 2-3 zone and some half-court pressure, all designed to neutralize Barber. None of that was as effective as an inadvertent knee-to-knee collision with Brandon Ingram five minutes and change into the second half.
After grabbing at his left knee and coming out of the game for a moment, Barber didn’t score again and missed all three shots he took.
“From that point forward in the game, we were a different team,” N.C. State coach Mark Gottfried acknowledged.
That was the least of Ingram’s influence. Coveted by N.C. State during the recruiting process, Ingram compounded Gottfried’s pain Saturday. Allen finished with a game-high 28, but Ingram had 15 of his 25 in the second half to help put Duke over the top.
With Barber slowed, N.C. State struggled offensively against the Duke zone and defensively against Duke’s penetration, which led to open shots and made baskets – lots of them, at a 71 percent clip in the second half.
It was a difficult, soul-searching week of practice for Duke, in desperate need of a win of any kind. Tweaks were made. Tactically, the zone was useful enough; strategically, the Blue Devils won the rebounding battle, obviating one of their primary weaknesses while denying the Wolfpack one of its main strengths.
“To see us come out and do what we prepared to do was a good thing,” Duke guard Matt Jones said. “Emotionally, yeah, it was a lot. Coming off a three-game losing streak, you have to prepare a lot.”
Jones had only eight points, but all of them came at critical moments Saturday, including a 3-pointer midway through the second half that ran Duke’s lead to double digits for the first time. In the final seconds, Jones – the fulcrum of pivotal, and damaging, late plays in each loss of Duke’s streak – turned his head to the ceiling to scream, “Yeah! Yeah!”
It was enough to silence the State fans and send them home on roads that were, at least, less icy than they were on the way to the arena. The governor couldn’t put a dent in the atmosphere Saturday, not like a limping Barber and a dominant Ingram did.
Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, email@example.com, @LukeDeCock