Duke captain Rodney Hood intended for Saturday to be a statement game for the No. 7 Blue Devils.
Their talent and maturity would be on display on the road at Notre Dame at a time when preparation was different due to the death of Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski’s brother.
Hood turned in one of the better games of the already strong season he’s having for Duke, but his turnover with 9.7 seconds left was the noticeable exception as the Blue Devils lost 79-77 to Notre Dame in the ACC basketball opener at Purcell Pavilion.
That is why Hood, on a day when he scored 27 points, choked back tears while talking about how Duke (11-3) came up a basket short in a game it led by 10 points in the second half.
“They outplayed us,” Hood said. “When we needed a stop, we didn’t get a stop. We had some balls go in and out, but I can name at least 10 plays where it was a breaking point and we didn’t pull it off. We’ve got to be able to do that on the road.”
Hood wanted the Blue Devils to be at their best even though Krzyzewski wasn’t at Thursday’s practice in Durham and didn’t travel with the team to South Bend, Ind., on Friday.
Bill Krzyzewski, Mike’s older brother, died at age 71 on Dec. 26. His wake and funeral were Thursday and Friday in Chicago. Mike Krzyzewski met up with the Blue Devils Friday night at Notre Dame for practice.
Mike Krzyzewski refused to use his personal grief as an excuse, saying “It’s private. I’m fine.”
Instead, Krzyzewski said Notre Dame, which trailed 60-50 with 11:35 to play, simply played offense so well that his Blue Devils weren’t able to guard them.
“We didn’t play as well defensively,” Krzyzewski said, “but they did play well offensively.”
Notre Dame shot 62.5 percent in the second half to finish at 52.6 percent for the game. The Irish had 18 assists with only six turnovers as their veteran backcourt of Eric Atkins (19 points, 11 rebounds) and Pat Connaughton (16 points, five assists) were too much for Duke to handle.
“I thought they handled the ball unbelievably well,” Krzyzewski said. “Eric Atkins was superb and so was Pat Connaughton.”
Hood and junior point guard Quinn Cook (22 points) represented Duke’s only double-figure scorers on a day when the Blue Devils shot 41.4 percent, their second-worst shooting day of the season.
Freshman forward Jabari Parker, averaging a team-best 21.4 points, scored just seven on 2 of 10 shooting. His worst day as a college player ended with him on the bench for the final 3:35 while Duke tried in vain to pull out the win.
“Well, he is a human being,” Krzyzewski said. “He didn’t play well today. That is part of being a freshman. Hopefully he’ll recover quickly from that.”
Notre Dame recovered quickly after Duke took that 60-50 lead on an Andre Dawkins 3-pointer. Just 13 seconds later, Demetrius Jackson sank a 3-pointer from the corner. Krzyzewski called that shot “the biggest shot of the game.”
“If we get a stop, we could have gone up by 12,” Krzyzewski said.
Instead, the Irish (10-4) embarked on a 20-4 run that turned the game in their favor for good.
Duke’s on-court communication served it well over the first nine minutes of the second half as it built its lead. But Notre Dame, after using its height to stay with Duke and trail 37-35 at halftime, switched to a four-guard lineup that sliced and diced the Blue Devils.
“Our lineup was very hard to guard,” said Notre Dame coach Mike Brey, a former Duke assistant coach. “We had that floor spread and we really moved without the ball and got great stuff at the end of the clock.”
That stretch of stellar basketball put the Irish up 70-64 with 3:35 to play.
After the final media timeout, Krzyzewski opted to leave the struggling Parker on the bench. Hood hit two free throws and, after an Atkins miss, Cook scored on a spinning move in the lane to pull Duke within a basket.
But Connaughton got loose on a back-door cut for an emphatic slam dunk. Duke’s Rasheed Sulaimon hit three free throws after being fouled on 3-pointer, leaving Notre Dame up 72-71.
With 1:22 left, Atkins found space to drive down the lane and hit a tough bank shot. Cook countered with two free throws for Duke.
But Notre Dame 6-11 center Garrick Sherman dropped in a hook shot for a 76-73 Irish lead with 32.4 seconds left as Duke failed once again to get a needed defensive stop.
“They deserved it,” Cook said. “They made some big-time plays at big-time moments.”
Still, Duke had one last chance to tie. Down 77-75 after Sherman made one of two free throws with 16.9 seconds left, the Blue Devils moved the ball up the court.
The defensive scramble left Notre Dame’s 6-10 forward Tom Knight guarding Hood in the open court.
“We were down two and you couldn’t draw it up better,” Krzyzewski said.
Hood got past Knight and drove to the basket. But he twisted in the air and attempted to kick the ball out. Jackson stole the pass, was fouled and made two free throws with 9.7 seconds left to seal the game for Notre Dame.
“I went hard,” Hood said. “I couldn’t slow myself down. I tried to make a play in the air. It was a bad decision on my part. I should have been more patient with it. I just couldn’t slow myself down.”
Instead, the statement win went to Notre Dame, which knocked off one the league heavyweights in its first ACC basketball game.
“We were just an immature team,” Hood said. “They back-doored us, ran the shot clock down, made us defend long possessions. I was supposed to pull through for my team. But it just didn’t happen today.”