Mike Krzyzewski knew the lesson would come sooner or later for his unbeaten team.
The No. 1 Blue Devils had yet to be in a single-digit game with less than 10 minutes to play this season.
From the 118-84 domination of then-No. 2 Kentucky to runaway wins over Army, Eastern Michigan and San Diego State, the Blue Devils had won their first four games by an average of 30 points.
Duke appeared to be headed toward another cruise of a victory Tuesday in the Maui Invitational semifinals when it built a 17-point, first-half lead over No. 8 Auburn and led by 16 points early in the second half.
The seasoned Tigers, starting three juniors and a senior, kept cutting the deficit back to single digits. They trailed by five points with 8:19 to play.
They never got closer, though. Facing such a test for the first time in the young season, the young Blue Devils didn’t blink.
“We threatened them,” Auburn coach Bruce Pearl said, “but they were never scared.”
Cam Reddish nailed a 3-pointer 12 seconds after Auburn cut the lead to 61-56. Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski called it the game’s biggest shot.
“That’s a big-time, it’s a big-time play,” Krzyzewski said.
The Blue Devils hit eight of their final 10 free throws, with Reddish sinking four in a row.
Though Auburn scored the game’s final points with five seconds left, Duke held on for a 78-72 win.
It was far from perfect. It was far from pretty. But the Blue Devils proved they could handle it when an opponent refused to be blown out and fought until the final minutes.
“Experience is the best way to learn, and hopefully we can get that experience and win,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “But it might be that you get an experience and you lose too. So today they won and I’m proud of them.”
Duke has played two games against teams ranked in the top 10 of the Associated Press poll. The Blue Devils haven’t trailed in either of them.
With four freshmen starters having only encountered close and late situations in practice, no one knew if they’d crumble when challenged or make winning plays.
That question has been answered.
“I feel like we handled it really well,” Duke freshman point guard Tre Jones said. “We go through those situations all the time in practice. The coaches prepare us for situations like this. I feel like we handled the adversity and were able to make the plays to win the game.”
Duke didn’t shoot well against Auburn, making only 44.4 percent of its field goals. That includes 7 of 25 3-pointers (28 percent). The Blue Devils had made 50.2 percent of their shots, 37.8 percent of 3-pointers, this season.
Freshman sensation Zion Williamson, averaging 22.3 points per game, made just one shot in the first half. His seemingly ever-present toothy smile disappeared.’
“I actually thought today he put some pressure on himself,” Krzyzewski said. “He usually is a kid that’s having a lot of fun. At one of the timeouts in the first half I said, smile, have fun.”
Williamson did, contributing to the difference-making plays in the final nine minutes. He blocked a Jared Harper layup attempt. He used a spin move to glide through the lane and lay in a basket with 6:31 left that pushed Duke’s lead back to double-digits at 69-59.
His strong rebound off an Austin Wiley missed free throw started a possession that ended with two Reddish free throws to put Duke up 77-66 with 1:34 left.
But this game was about more than Williamson.
It was Reddish, after picking up three backcourt fouls in the first half, shaking off those mistakes to answer Harper’s 3-pointer with his own at the 8:07 mark.
“I thought he hit the biggest shot of the game when they hit their three to go down, they were down five and he came down, it wasn’t called or anything, he just, boom, he got us back to eight,” Krzyzewski said.
Duke’s poor free-throw shooting over the game’s first 30 minutes helped Auburn hang around. But, after making just 15 of their first 24 free throws, the Blue Devils hit 8 of their final 10.
Reddish hit four. Jones hit three. Jack White added one.
Duke did play tough defense throughout the game, blocking 11 shots to help limit Auburn to a 36.4 percent shooting night. The Tigers only turned the ball over nine times but Duke’s six steals forced the majority of them.
Junior Marques Bolden played a big role in that. The 6-10 center blocked seven shots and grabbed nine rebounds.
“This is the best, by far, that we have protected our basket in a few years,” Krzyzewski said. “I mean for a kid to get seven blocks and change shots in there. He was as good as he was in some of the offensive things. The defense was exquisite. It was at the highest level. Seven blocks and changing some shots, man, that’s a heck of a performance.”
It was a winning performance, something Duke’s players up and down the lineup contributed to in what was a new situation for a talented team.