When things didn’t go right for Jayson Tatum down the stretch, Dennis Smith Jr. was there.
The N.C. State rookie was nearby when Tatum missed four consecutive shots in a late six-minute span, rebounding three of those tries.
After Tatum lost a behind-the-back dribble that ricocheted off his foot in the final second, Smith was there to capture the steal. His final jam didn’t count, as he was alone with the ball and his stride to prove he’d outshined Tatum in Monday’s battle between two of the top prospects.
In Duke’s 84-82 loss to N.C. State at Cameron Indoor Stadium, the Wolfpack’s first win at the site since 1995, Smith also showed how well he could carry his team.
Tatum, as mightily as he tried, could not.
No. 17 Duke (15-5, 3-4 ACC) was up seven points when Tatum missed his first layup of that stretch. The Blue Devils trailed five when he missed the last around the rim. The freshman wing finished with 16 points on a team-high 14 shots (7-of-14, 1-of-4 from deep).
On the final play, junior guard Grayson Allen was open on his left.
“That last play, we have five seconds left, so I was just trying to push it,” Tatum said. “It was a bad play on my end. I should’ve probably just kicked it ahead after I got the rebound. It’s just something I can learn from.”
Tatum mustered up a three-point play that brought Duke within one with six seconds on the board.
He finished with three assists, which all came in the first half. Duke wound up with 12 total on 17 made shots before the break, shooting 56.7 percent as a result.
The Devils shot 38.2 percent in the second half, going 3-of-10 on their final 10 attempts, while the Wolfpack (14-7, 3-5) managed 7-of-10 thanks to Smith. He scored or assisted the team’s final 16 points, driving at will to give N.C. State the largest lead (79-73) of the game with 1:22 left. The basket came in the middle of the Wolfpack’s 20-5 run.
We’ll watch film, and I’ll realized that somebody was open.
Tatum’s final miss was a strong attempt up the middle with 23.5 seconds left, leading scorer Luke Kennard fouling out and sending Smith to the line in the same breath. Kennard finished the day with 20 points on a 5-of-9 night.
Only Smith took more shots than Tatum Monday. Smith got a career-high 32 points on 10-of-18 shooting, while Tatum’s double-digit figure was produced off 14 shots.
Tatum’s hallmark has been isolation basketball. The 6-8, 205-pound freshman can be extremely tough to defend and won’t hesitate to shoot over defenders.
Tatum leads Duke with taking 27.8 percent of the team’s shots, though he missed the first eight games of the season with a sprained foot. He’s also uses a team-high 28.6 percent of possessions this season.
Though Duke’s shooting percentage dipped after the break, acting head coach Jeff Capel, who is now 2-3 since Mike Krzyzewski has been out recovering from back surgery, was satisfied with the team’s attempts.
“We got good looks during that stretch,” he said. “We got good looks I thought throughout the second half. Some were rushed, a few, but I don’t think many. I thought we got some clean looks during that stretch.”
Tatum found a mid-range jumper after a well-defended possession at the 12:44 mark of the second, giving Duke a meager 56-52 lead.
The Blue Devils led by as much as nine after halftime, pushing a 9-0 run.
After the game, Tatum was forthright about what needs to happen next. Duke travels to Wake Forest, which beat N.C. State at home this season for the first time in more than a decade, and then turns around two days later for a challenging road game at Notre Dame, whose lone conference loss is against Florida State.
“We’ll watch film, and I’ll realized that somebody was open,” Tatum said. “I had a couple of layups that I should’ve made that rolled in and out. Sometimes, the ball just doesn’t go in, and it’s not your day.”
Jessika Morgan: 919-829-4538, @JessikaMorgan