A few big plays from Tyler Thornton were key in Duke's comeback win over North Carolina. Credit: CHUCK LIDDY
DURHAM—It wasn’t pretty. But it was a win over an archrival, and it came in the midst of perhaps Duke’s most hectic week of the year (snow-delayed travel to BC, UNC Wed. and then a trip to a sure-to-be hostile Maryland arena on Sat.). A look back at Duke’s 73-68 win, with a breakdown of several key segments of the game.
***No matter what the coaches say, the Duke-Carolina game is more than just a game (Jeff Capel also agreed with that, as stated in the preview). Add Mason Plumlee to the list of people willing to publicly agree to that thought, too
“This game is so different than any other game,” he said. You have chills before the game. It’s crazy, so you almost have to catch your breath after that first wind and just kind of settle in to the game.”
It took Duke a while to settle in. Quinn Cook tried to go over the top to Plumlee right away, but the two couldn’t connect (this theme would play out throughout most of the game). Josh Hairston threw a pass to no one on the next possession, which Marcus Paige turned into a transition layup.
Cook couldn’t get the ball inbounds on Duke’s next possession, and Reggie Bullock drained an open 3 off of a screen at the other end. And then, after Rasheed Sulaimon got the Blue Devils on the board, Cook threw away another pass, this one in transition. UNC’s next offensive possession ended with James Michael McAdoo slipping behind the defense and slamming home a dunk.
Three early Duke turnovers, seven UNC points. And The Tar Heels had an early 7-2 lead.
The sloppiness would continue for the Blue Devils, as they finished the first half with 11 turnovers and 12 field goals. But North Carolina couldn’t fully capitalize as the Blue Devils were bumbling around, leading just 33-29 at the half.
“We were a little stagnant in the beginning,” Cook said. “We weren’t running our offense and we weren’t being sharp and screening.”
The 7-0 Tar Heels run
***Perhaps the key segment in the first half was a 7-0 run by UNC that started after Duke had cut it to a one-possession lead for the Tar Heels, 21-18, with just under eight minutes to go.
Plumlee got caught in no man’s land, opting not to follow McAdoo as he drifted out to the 3-point line. Plumlee also didn’t come up on P.J. Hairston, who nailed a mid-range jumper. Plumlee then missed two free throws, and Marcus Paige took advantage of a mismatch and drove the lane with Alex Murphy trailing him to make it 25-18 UNC. Cook turned over another inbounds pass, and Bullock, in transition with the Tar Heels holding a 5-on-2 edge, drilled a 3 to make it 28-18, and Mike Krzyzewski called timeout.
Duke’s offense was still stagnant, shooting 8-of-25 from the field (32 percent). And the Blue Devils had recorded zero assists to that point.
***After that 7-0 run, though, Duke showed signs of getting back to normal offensively. Seth Curry hit his first shot with just over five minutes remaining, thanks to a pass from Cook—Duke’s first assist of the game. And Tyler Thornton hit Duke’s first 3 with 4:13 remaining (by the way, if Thornton is hitting 3s, you know it’s a big-time game).
So to recap: For the first 15 minutes, Duke had no assists, no 3s and Curry had no points. But when the half ended, Duke only trailed by four. That was a win for the Blue Devils.
Also good to point out here that UNC’s perimeter defense was solid, much more so than when the Tar Heels gave up 15 3s to Miami last weekend. The length of P.J. Hairston (6-foot-5) and Bullock (6-foot-7) bothered the smaller guards in Sulaimon and Curry. So it wasn’t just Duke shooting itself in the foot. North Carolina had a lot to do with the slow start, too.
***Duke went to the four-guard look for about two minutes late in the first half. Cook, Thornton, Sulaimon and Curry joined Plumlee on the floor.
If memory serves me correct (and if I’m wrong, please correct me), Duke had only every gone to the four-guard set in one other game, against Florida State. That look would spark Duke’s comeback in the second half.
One other first-half note
***Another area of concern for Duke, especially early on, was the inability to finish around the rim. Amile Jefferson missed some point-blank looks after corralling offensive rebounds, but, as a freshman that has only played significant minutes for a month, that’s going to happen. A couple of Plumlee’s inside misses, though, were concerning.
After Plumlee went to the bench with three fouls and a soft defensive effort, Josh Hairston took the floor with 17:39 to go. Less than a minute later, with UNC leading 38-32, Thornton game in for Jefferson, leaving Duke with another four-guard set: Cook, Thornton, Curry, Sulaimon and Hairston, who measures just 6-foot-8 himself. None of the guards are taller than 6-foot-4.
But the combination worked.
As mentioned in the game story, Cook provided a spark with a hustle play that created a turnover and caused Bullock to foul. That was the started a 15-5 run that changed it from a 38-32 UNC lead to a 47-43 Duke advantage. That also was the stretch where the Blue Devils finally found their 3-point shooting touch, as Thornton (from the right corner), Curry (from the left wing, off of a handoff from Hairston) and Sulaimon (from the left wing, with Strickland playing soft defense) each hit a 3 to help erase the deficit. At that point, Roy Williams called timeout.
Right after the run stopped, Thornton added another 3, as Duke lead 50-45 with 12:25 remaining in the game.
“I think the biggest plays in the second half were when [Tyler] Thornton hit a couple of big 3s,” Roy Williams said. “We weren’t supposed be helping guard the ball and not sag back into help. He hit two open threes and one of them came off of an offensive rebound.”
Even when Pumlee returned, Duke stayed with the four-guard look for two more minutes. When Jefferson came in for Curry with 10:11 remaining in the game, Duke had a 52-47 lead.
Meanwhile, instead of driving, North Carolina started settling for jump shots, which weren’t going in with the frequency they had been earlier. From the 3:50 mark of the first half, North Carolina went 7-of-31 (23 percent), from the field until P.J. Hairston tipped a ball in with 4:46 to go to cut Duke’s lead to 59-53.
The difference down the stretch was unquestionably free throws. Duke went 13-of-14 in the second half, while UNC went 10-of-16. At one point, with less than seven minutes remaining, McAdoo and Reggie Bullock missed six free throws in a row. They finished a combined 1-of-9 from the line.
As recently as Jan. 26, Duke was shooting less than 70 percent from the free throw line. Since that point the team, as a whole, has steadily improved. Plumlee, who was a 65 percent free throw shooter entering the Boston College game, is 13-of-18 in the past two games, but, more importantly, he has connected in late game situations. He was 4-for-4 in the final 2:30 against North Carolina.
Another late-game, key moment: with a 65-61 lead and under 40 seconds left in the game, Duke used all of the shot clock and, and Thronton threw up a prayer with one second left. His miss from 3-point range did graze the rim, and Bullock was called for a foul on the rebound. Sulaimon hit both free throws, so, instead of it being North Carolina’s ball down four, Duke had a six point-lead.
“We were still right there, get them to miss a shot,” Williams said. “I thought it was going to be a shot clock violation, but he called a foul. It probably was a foul.”
In the end, the final horn sounded with Duke ahead 73-68. Duke had overcome a slow start, a bad game from Plumlee and the fatigue that comes with a 9 p.m. start in a rivalry game. No, it wasn’t pretty. But, as Krzyzewski said, it was gritty.
“The atmosphere in there was insane,” Sulaimon said. “We were dog-tired out there, we gave it our all, we sacrificed our bodies, each and every one of us did, and just the energy from the crowd helped us and propelled us to keep pushing and fighting to win for them.”