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Duke wins defensive war with Georgia Tech

January 27, 2019
Duke's Tre Jones, back from injury, during the Blue Devils' 66-53 win over Georgia Tech on Saturday, January 26, 2019 at Cameron Indoor Stadium in Durham, NC. (Photo by Jack Morton)

Tre Jones returned to the Duke lineup Saturday, and likely none too soon. The Blue Devils needed every ounce of his on ball defensive pressure to subdue a Georgia Tech team committed to playing its own brand of aggressive defense. The Blue Devils actually fell behind late in the first half and started slowly in the second half-two segments of the game where Mike Krzyzewski teams typically shine-before turning up the heat defensively and gradually taking control of the game in the final minutes. Duke, which typically plays games in the 80’s and 90’s, won this contest at Georgia Tech’s pace, 66-53.

The Yellow Jackets seemed to put the jacket on Duke’s shooters early. Duke made just 8-27 from the floor in the first half, including a mere 1-12 from beyond the arc. But Duke picked a good day to have a good day from the free throw line. Tech committed 11 first half fouls, and the Blue Devils cashed in, really remaining in contention in the first half by knocking down 10-12 from the charity stripe. Duke seemed to find a solution to GT’s 1-3-1 and 2-2-1 zones at one point when R.J. Barrett stationed himself at the free throw line, caught the ball in the middle of the defense and drove to the basket. This gave Duke a 24-20 lead and Tech coach Josh Pastner quickly called time. The Blue Devils did not score another field goal over the final 5:15 of the first half. Tech meanwhile, took custody of the lead before intermission, thanks to a putback slam by Evan Cole, a drive by Michael Devoe, a three ball from Curtis Haywood, and a transition basket by Jose Alvarado. Georgia Tech led at intermission 29-27.

“We didn’t hit some shots and we didn’t convert fast breaks in that first half,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski observed,“ adding “their defense and us worked together to score only 27 points.”

It would get worse for Duke in the second half. Devoe again took it to the basket for two. Two of Tech’s big men, Abdoulaye Gueye and Evan Cole, each scored in transition. Duke, which scored only two fast break points in the first half, continued to struggle in its half court offense. Down 35-27, Kryzewski called time out. As happened last week against Virginia, Duke came out of the time out in an alignment designed to set up Zion Williamson. The big freshman delivered a dunk to bring Duke back within six. Yet, Georgia Tech continued to score, going up 38-31 on a strong post move by Gueye. And then momentum switched:

“We got that stretch where we had turnovers,” Georgia Tech coach Josh Pastner pointed out. “And they were live ball turnovers.”

Finally, a booster shot for Duke’s ailing transition game. A turnover by Devoe led to a triple by Cam Reddish, a rare three on this day. And that shot came on the break. Tech’s Alvarado turned it over on the following possession. Barrett stole the ball and fed Jones for another fast break score. Duke still trailed, but by now clearly had things going its way:

“The second half didn’t start out well again,” Krzyzewski said. “I thought we were in a trance. After the time out our guys really started playing defense.”

And both Barrett and Williamson got it going offensively. Williamson put down a well defended dunk that actually bounced in, drawing the fourth foul of GT star James Banks in the process. Then Barrett took over, hitting a jumper, scoring on a drive to the basket with a nifty scoop shot, then adding two free throws, and an offensive rebound basket. When Williamson made a power move to the basket scoring with his left hand, Duke led 48-40. Georgia Tech would never get closer than six points the rest of the way, as Duke put together runs of 13-0 and 18-6.

Barrett led Duke with 24 points and 11 rebounds. Williamson added 22. Barrett and Williamson combined for five offensive rebounds; the Blue Devils got 13 second chance points and that helped turn the game on a day when Duke made just 2-21 shots from beyond the three point arc:

“Defensively is who we are,” Pastner said. “That’s our identity, the only way to have survival in this league is to defend. We spend a lot of time on closing out and other things.”

Asked about his team’s poor shooting from three, Duke’s Krzyzewski said this: “Most of it was their defense, they play really good defense. You have to be ready to shoot. I didn’t think we were ready to shoot. We were catching it, and then their defense came on us.”

Krzyzewski also bemoaned his team’s play in transition. Normally a Duke staple, the Blue Devils recorded just seven fast break points: “We had transition in the first half,” Coach K said. “We didn’t score. You’ve got to either score the bucket, or score on fouls, or both. You can’t come up empty in transition at the basket.” The Duke coach noted there were some transition failures in the second half as well, although he acknowledged that the quick fast break baskets when Georgia Tech led 38-31 gave his team a momentum surge.

But this was a day where Duke’s defense, especially in the second half, overshadowed the offense. The Blue Devils limited Tech to 41% from the floor, and more importantly forced the Jackets into 19 turnovers. Those turnovers led to 24 Duke points. Both coaches talked about Tre Jones:

“I thought Tre Jones made a difference,” Pastner said. “I thought he was really good defensively.”

“This kid is a special, special competitor,” Krzyzewski said. “I love him. It’s not anything I taught him, but thank goodness he’s with us.”

Jones for the day scored six points, adding four assists and four rebounds. He also was credited with one steal and only one turnover in 35 minutes.

Duke did lose the services of big man Marques Bolden early in the second half, due to a toe injury. The Blue Devils played the remainder of the game with a smaller line up, but still managed to make it an even day on the backboard, although Georgia Tech did score 40 points in the paint. Georgia Tech also outscored Duke in bench points 12-5. No matter. Duke had the ultimate sixth man. Krzyzewski praised the home crowd for being ready to go for a 12 o’clock game, which he noted, doesn’t always happen in other venues.

With the win, Duke improves to 6-1 in ACC play, but the Blue Devils have little time to savor the hard fought victory. A trip to snowy South Bend awaits, as Duke visits Notre Dame Monday night.

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