It happened on the second possession of Duke’s game against Pittsburgh Wednesday night.
Senior guard Grayson Allen stole a pass, dribbled the ball down court and threw an alley-oop to freshman forward Marvin Bagley III, who slammed it in.
But when they ran back on defense, all five players on the floor did something they hadn’t done all season:
They slapped the floor.
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“We didn’t plan it,” Allen said. “It was really just something that happened.”
Slapping the floor is almost like a tradition for Duke basketball. Players have done it for years, in big moments in games before a defensive possession. It’s meant to show unity, intensity and defensive pressure.
As Allen, described it, “it’s putting pride into your defense.”
But Duke players hadn’t slapped the floor this season until Wednesday night, when they beat Pitt, 87-52, at Petersen Events Center in Pittsburgh.
Those slaps seemed to jolt the seventh-ranked Blue Devils (14-2, 2-2 ACC) and set the tone for the rest of the game. They got key stops, forced Pitt (8-9, 0-4) to turn the ball over and forced tough shots. After the first half, Pitt was shooting 37.5 percent from the floor and scored only 24 points. It scored 28 points in the second half.
“Once we started playing defense and started getting stops, it gets our offense rolling,” said freshman point guard Trevon Duval, who had 14 points and 3 steals.
Pitt’s 52 points were the second fewest Duke has given up in a game this season. The fewest was 40 points, when Duke beat Evansville 104-40 on Dec. 20.
In previous conference games this year, Duke had been a bad defensive team. Against Boston College (11-6, 2-3) on Dec. 9, it gave up 89 points in an 89-84 loss. Against then-No. 24 Florida State (12-4, 1-3) on Dec. 30, it gave up 93 points in a 100-93 win. And against N.C. State last Saturday, Duke gave up 96 in a 96-85 loss. N.C. State (11-5, 1-2), which had lost its previous two ACC games by a combined 46 points, shot over 50 percent for the game.
Defense has been the focus in practice for the Blue Devils, because in order to win in March and April, Duke knows it has to perform better than it has on the defensive end so far this season. While Duke ranks No. 1 in adjusted offensive efficiency (points scored per 100 possessions) at 126.4 by kenpom.com, an advanced analytic site, it ranks No. 92 in adjusted defensive efficiency (points allowed per 100 possessions) at 99.6.
“I’m tired of giving up 90 points a game,” said Bagley, who finished with 16 points and 15 rebounds. “Tired of letting teams storm the court when we play them on the road. It was just time for us tonight to really take a stand and lock down on defense and get stops. And we did that.”
It took four minutes for Pitt to score its first basket. By that time, Duke had taken a 10-0 lead. Pitt was without its best player, senior forward Ryan Luther (6-9, 225 pounds), and the Panthers had to start five freshmen. Luther is one of two returning players on Pitt’s team.
Duke starts mostly freshmen too, but its freshmen were among the best in the country coming out of high school.
Pitt never found its rhythm on offense. Of the 10 players who took at least one shot, only two shot over 50 percent from the floor. Both took fewer than four shots. The Panthers finished the game shooting 33.3 percent from the field overall and 18 percent (4-for-22) from behind the 3-point line.
Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said he liked his team’s intensity on defense and how they sustained it the entire game.
“We’ve been practicing like crazy trying to get better,” Krzyzewski said. “And we were better tonight. And we have to just keep working at it. They’re young kids, and we’re not deep. They have talent but they’re real young and they just have to keep learning these new habits.
“So today was a step forward.”