The schedule didn’t allow time for a full practice and the human body can only expend so much energy.
As much as No. 18 Duke knew it had to dig deep to have enough emotion to play another ACC game on Saturday about 40 hours after a scintillating win over rival North Carolina, the Blue Devils just weren’t at their best.
Preparation lacked. And so did the energy.
Yet Duke still had Luke Kennard. And that, plus one big defensive stop when it was absolutely necessary, was enough to beat Clemson, 64-62, at Cameron Indoor Stadium.
“This will be our toughest game, and it was our best win,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “This is our best win because you had a really good Clemson team and you had human nature, man.”
The only Duke (20-5, 8-4 ACC) player to score in double figures was Kennard, who tallied 25 points. That included a key second-half stretch where he scored 15 Duke points in a row after Clemson had clawed its way to a one-point lead.
“Luke’s energy we needed,” Duke senior guard Matt Jones said. “It was infectious. That’s what Luke can do. He can go stretches where nobody can stop him. Especially in that moment when we were having a hard time scoring, we definitely needed that from him.”
Having beat No. 8 UNC 86-78 late Thursday night, Duke participated in a lifeless game for the first half against Clemson (13-11, 3-9).
Neither team shot well. In fact, the Tigers were downright putrid while hitting just 17.9 percent of their first-half shots (5-of-28).
Duke led 29-18 at intermission and, after a pair of Amile Jefferson baskets, had built a comfortable 38-25 lead with 15:57 to play.
Game over, right? Not at all.
“We knew that this was going to be tough, especially on our legs,” Duke freshman forward Jayson Tatum said. “More in the second half we felt it. It took a collective effort to get it done.”
Clemson had finally discovered an offensive spark. The Tigers were in the midst of scoring on six consecutive possessions as they climbed back within 38-34.
When Grayson Allen and Amile Jefferson fumbled the ball on a handoff attempt in one of Duke’s halfcourt sets, Clemson’s Marcquise Reed stole the ball and drove for thunderous one-handed slam dunk to give the Tigers a 45-44 lead with 10:10 to play.
That’s when Kennard cut loose.
Duke’s leading scorer this season, Kennard hit a 3-pointer from the top of the key for a 47-45 Duke lead. After Shelton Mitchell scored for Clemson to tie the score, Kennard drilled another 3-pointer and Duke led 50-47.
A Jones steal got Duke the ball back, and Kennard drove for a lay-in with 8:30 left that put Duke up 52-47.
Clemson was in the midst of going nearly six minutes without a field goal, and Kennard hit five free throws to net Duke its points. His two charity tosses with 4:42 left put Duke ahead 57-51.
“We went almost exclusively to Luke,” Krzyzewski said. “We liked the matchup, and we put a new thing in at a timeout. Then we were able to run our stuff, we didn’t want to use the whole (shot) clock, but to put them in position to foul. They did, and we hit free throws.”
Duke led 62-55 when Tatum hit his only 3-pointer of the game with two minutes left. But Clemson fought back again. Mitchell’s three-point play allowed Clemson to cut Duke’s lead to 62-60 with 1:10 left.
Kennard’s two free throws at 43.9 put Duke up 64-60, but Reed’s layup left the Duke lead at 64-62 with 37 seconds left.
After Frank Jackson missed a 3-pointer for Duke, Clemson had possession with six seconds left and needed to go the length of the court.
The Tigers were out of timeouts. Because of that, Krzyzewski didn’t want to call one to set his defense.
So the tired Blue Devils had to do it on their own.
Duke double-teamed Mitchell, who already had 23 points. Clemson was forced to throw it near halfcourt to Sidy Djitte and Kennard deflected the ball out of bounds with 4.3 seconds left.
“Those two seconds were crucial,” Krzyzewski said. “Luke almost got it.”
The Blue Devils double-teamed Mitchell again on another inbounds, forcing him to retreat into the backcourt to take the pass. That extra real estate meant he didn’t have time to drive for a shot that could have tied the score.
Instead, Mitchell tried a contested 3-pointer, with Jones on him, that never had a chance.
Duke had survived to run its winning streak to five games.
“You’re counting on these guys to do what ... they are supposed to do, and they did,” Krzyzewski said. “That’s another step forward for our group.”