Duke drops Pitt 79-65 for Coach K’s 999th career win

Duke guard Tyus Jones (5) fires up a first-half shot against the Pitt Panther defense at Cameron Indoor Stadium.
Duke guard Tyus Jones (5) fires up a first-half shot against the Pitt Panther defense at Cameron Indoor Stadium. cliddy@newsobserver.com

A message flashed on the Cameron Indoor Stadium video board before the game read, “We’re going to party like it’s 999.”

That’s exactly what the Blue Devils did, defeating Pittsburgh 79-65 to give head coach Mike Krzyzewski 999 wins for his career. His first attempt at No. 1,000 will come Sunday against St. John’s in Madison Square Garden.

No. 5 Duke (16-2, 4-2 ACC) returned to shooting like Duke teams of old. After stringing together three straight games shooting worse than 27 percent from 3-point range, the Blue Devils broke out for an 11-of-23 (48 percent) performance. Tyus Jones, who entered the game shooting 1 of 10 from 3-point range in ACC play, saw his first attempt do a full rotation around the rim before falling out. An offensive rebound by Quinn Cook gave him a chance from the opposite corner – this one he nailed, giving Duke a 7-0 lead and forcing Pitt coach Jamie Dixon to call a timeout.

“I was hoping it fell in,” Jones said with a smile, describing his you-gotta-be-kidding-me miss. “I got it right back and didn’t think twice about it.”

Jones finished 4 of 6 from deep with 22 total points, tying his career high. An NBA-range 3 late in the shot clock in the second half gave him 21 points, put Duke up 72-57 and forced Pitt to use its last timeout with 6 minutes, 1 second left in the game.

The whole offense flowed better – a credit to Jones and his ability to run the team – and it even worked in a few unconventional ways. Jahlil Okafor led Duke with five assists. Cook led the team with 10 rebounds, a career-high.

Cook credited the long rebounds guards can grab easily in the zone, which is a bit counterintuitive to the idea that a zone makes it harder for teams to rebound since fewer players are near the basket. Just as they had against Louisville, the Blue Devils mixed the 2-3 zone with a man-to-man, adding full- and half-court pressure at times – it kept them, as well as the Panthers, guessing.

“Sometimes guys will be in a different defense than the other guys, so that’s just on us communicating and making sure everyone is on the same page,” Jones said.

On the plus side, the constant switching of defenses forces the Blue Devils to talk more and stay focused. That worked better in the first half – and, not coincidentally, that was the half that the Blue Devils played defense in front of their own bench, where they could hear the coaches yelling instructions easier.

Just like at Louisville Saturday, Duke opened in the zone again against the Panthers (13-6, 3-3 ACC). Pitt doesn't shoot many 3-pointers – entering the game, just 32.5 percent of its points came from 3-point range, last in the ACC and 221st nationally – and to their credit, the Panthers didn’t jack up many against the zone (just three in the first half). But Pitt still struggled to hit jump shots from inside the arc, shooting 41 percent (10 of 24) from 2-point range, featuring mainly jump shots, which were preferable to high-percentage looks at the basket. The zone created turnovers in the first half, too, as Duke converted six Pitt turnovers into 14 points.

Of course, scheme alone won’t stymie an opponent – the execution has to be there, too. In the second half, when Duke defended the side of the floor away from the close gaze of the coaches, the Panthers were shooting more than 60 percent from the field until the final minute of play.

The Panthers scored on their first six possessions of the second half – Duke played three in man-to-man and three in zone – prompting a quick Krzyzewski timeout. Pitt got as close as 10at 44-34 midway through the second half, but a 19-8 Duke run took care of that threat. The Panthers didn’t go away, cutting it to 10 again with less than three minutes remaining – Duke’s nonexistent transition defense was largely to blame for that – but the Panthers were in too deep of a hole.

During the Duke’s final timeout, with 56.6 seconds remaining, all three student sections took turns chanting “Nine, nine, nine” – a fitting sendoff for Krzyzewski and the Blue Devils as they play their next three games on the road.

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