Army’s toughness in a loss pushed Duke the way it needed pushed

Human nature set in for the Duke Blue Devils this week.

Their 118-84 win over No.2-ranked Kentucky sent shockwaves around the basketball world, especially because three Duke freshmen combined for 83 points to nearly equal the overmatched Wildcats.

The young Blue Devils talked a good game on Friday, saying they knew not all of their games would go as well as their season-opening win.

They found that out during a 94-72 win over Army at Cameron Indoor Stadium on Sunday.

Sure the Blue Devils posted a 22-point win. Sure three of their four freshmen starters -- Zion Williamson, R.J. Barrett and Cam Reddish -- each topped the 20-point mark again.

Duke forward Javin DeLaurier (12) (left) and forward R.J. Barrett (5) react after Barrett scored and was fouled in the second half against Army . Duke defeated Army 94-72 at Cameron Indoor Stadium In Durham, N.C. Sunday, Nov. 11, 2018. Chuck Liddy

But, unlike when they built a 22-point lead in the first 10 minutes against Kentucky, the Blue Devils could never feel comfortable against the Black Knights until opening a 17-point lead with 9:26 to play in Sunday’s game.

Army trailed by just six points, 67-61, with 12:14 to play before Duke’s game-deciding run.

The way Army played and hung around his uber-talented team well past halftime caused Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, a noted Army alum, to praise his alma mater’s team.

“Army played terrific,” Krzyzewski said. “They played hard. They played together. They played fast, The perfect game for us following Kentucky as we grow as a team. I didn’t think our preparation for the game was at the level that it has been and part of that has to do with winning game by as much as we did in that setting against Kentucky.”

Every Duke basketball team plays in a spotlight. Every team has to deal with high expectations.

This team has four freshmen starters going through it for the first time with no veteran players who have played major roles in previous seasons.

The win over Kentucky spawned talk that this Duke team could beat a struggling NBA team. Since the Blue Devils returned from Indianapolis around 4 a.m. Wednesday, the team received praise from Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr. Rapper Travis Scott stopped by to visit on Friday ahead of his concert that night at Raleigh’s PNC Arena.

“Part of becoming good is keeping the noise out of your locker room,” Krzyzewski said. “When something good happens and you have the start of the season, there is a lot of noise. A lot of noise. For us, it’s not always good noise. In this case, it was exceptional noise. Exceptional noise.”

That noise led to the Blue Devils not playing as well as they are capable.

Duke forward R.J. Barrett (5) attempts to move past Army guard Jordan Fox (1) and guard Jacob Kessler (10) in the first half. Duke defeated Army 94-72 at Cameron Indoor Stadium In Durham, N.C. Sunday, Nov. 11, 2018. Chuck Liddy

“It was very clear that (Army) played harder than us in the first half,” Williamson said. “I think they wanted it more. We came out there very sloppy. We came in at halftime and Coach (Krzyzewski) just said, ‘To be great, you’ve got to play harder, no matter who you’re playing against.’ So I think the difference in the second half for us was we just played harder. We moved the ball around a lot more instead of trying to go one-on-one, and I think that was our difference-maker.”

It must be said here that Williamson scored 21 first-half points in spite of that statement. He finished with 27 points, 16 rebounds, six blocked shots and four assists.

Still, Army made things hard for Duke.

“They really came at us and really gave us a punch for a while,” Barrett said, “but we were able to turn it around so we got the win.”

Army executed a game plan that was effective in taking away some of the things Duke did exceptionally well against Kentucky.

The Army defense was far different than Kentucky’s (insert joke here about ANY defense being better than Kentucky’s was against Duke).

The Wildcats played Duke man-to-man and challenged on the perimeter only to see the Blue Devils drive past them for easy baskets.

Army played a hybrid defense that had zone characteristics, bunching the middle of the court to take away those driving lanes. Duke attempted 36 3-pointers, making 15 of them for a 41.7 percent clip.

Reddish set a Duke freshman record by making seven of them. He hit three over the first 11 minutes of the second half when the Blue Devils finally opened up a comfortable lead for good.

Barrett added three 3-pointers on nine attempts. He scored 23 points but also turned the ball over a team-worst five times.

Though Army’s sharp passing led to easy baskets that allowed them to stay with Duke for nearly 30 minutes of the game, the Black Knights finished shooting 35.9 percent overall and 38.7 percent on 3-pointers (12 of 31).

Army made 7 of 15 3-pointers in the first half (46 percent) but slumped to 5 of 16 (31.3 percent) in the final 20 minutes.

So Duke posted what appears to be an easy win that was far from that. The Blue Devils play Eastern Michigan on Wednesday night at Cameron with Krzyzewski expecting a full dose of zone defense for his team to try to attack.

Yes another challenge awaits. The hope is after experiencing the ease of the Kentucky win and the struggles on the way to victory over Army, the Blue Devils are starting to develop the internal leadership needed for the larger challenges that await in the months to come.

Krzyzewski saw some of that against Army from Williamson, Barrett and freshman point guard Tre Jones.

“Tre really started talking and R.J. and Zion throughout,” Krzyzewski said. “It’s coming. It’s a process.”

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