Down at half, Duke regroups to pull away from Drury
Newly minted as the No. 4 team in the country with the regular season less than a week away, Duke received a lesson about the work it still must do on Saturday.
The first 20 minutes of an exhibition against Drury, the reigning Division II national champions from Springfield, Mo., were downright ugly from a Blue Devils perspective.
“They cut us up in the beginning,” Duke point guard Quinn Cook said.
With no player taller than 6-5, the Panthers out-rebounded Duke, protected the ball against the Blue Devils’ pressure defense and took a four-point lead to the locker room.
Following so many halftime words from coach Mike Krzyzewski that the Blue Devils had just two minutes left to warm up after exiting the locker room, Duke improved its play dramatically and, as anticipated, toppled Drury 81-65 at Cameron Indoor Stadium.
That doesn’t mean, though, the Blue Devils walked away thrilled with their final tuneup before opening the regular season Friday against a Davidson team that played in the NCAA Tournament last March.
“Davidson is a great team.” Said Duke senior guard Tyler Thornton, one of the team captains. “If we come out unfocused and play like we didn’t today, they’ll kill us. We have to get ready for them on Friday.”
Now in his 34th season at Duke, Krzyzewski is preparing a team that is replacing three senior starters from last year, two of them — forwards Mason Plumlee (Nets) and Ryan Kelly (Lakers) — now in the NBA. Because new players with NBA talent like Rodney Hood and Jabari Parker are filling starting roles, the Blue Devils are expected to compete for a national championship.
But Drury, running motion offense to perfection with lesser athletes while grabbing loose balls left and right, made Duke look like anything but a top-five team over the game’s first 20 minutes.
“They play as one and we are trying to learn to play that way,” Krzyzewski said. “You know sometimes you are predicted to do something, sometimes those predictions are based on what people think our potential is and sometimes you are predicted on what you have coming back that’s already been proven.
“All of our stuff is on potential, you know. We are a really young basketball team that needs to get better. We will get better. Playing a game like this will help us get better.”
Duke’s problems, the coaches and players said, centered on poor communication. That’s why Drury turned the ball over only six times in the first half while grabbing nine offensive rebounds which led to 12 second-chance points.
“We have to be connected as a unit,” Duke forward Amile Jefferson said. “Not just what people say about the talent we have. The guys we brought back. The guys we brought in. The onus is on us to do it. We have to be together. On the court and off the court, we have to communicate. Talk as one. When we do that it’s fun. In spurts we did that. We really looked good.”
Those spurts came in the second half when Duke exerted its strengths. Drury turned the ball over 11 times while securing only two offensive rebounds over the final 20 minutes.
Jefferson played a major role in leading the Blue Devils. The 6-8 sophomore scored 13 points while grabbing 16 rebounds and handing out four assists.
After trailing 38-34 at intermission, Duke finally drew even at 44 when Cook hit a 3-pointer with 14:59 to play. After a Panthers turnover, senior forward Josh Hairston grabbed Alex Murphy’s missed shot and scored to put Duke in front for good.
Duke’s lead was still in single digits until Thornton sank a 3-pointer with 6:23 left that put Duke up 66-55. The Blue Devil lead never dropped into single digits again.
That didn’t mean, though, that all was good for the Blue Devils.
“They played hard for 40 minutes,” said Hood, Duke’s co-captain who scored a team-best 21 points. “I think we needed that wake-up call. It’s not that we just come in and beat people off athleticism and talent. We’ve got to do the little things. They did all the little things and it showed at halftime.”
Sophomore guard Rasheed Sulaimon didn’t play Saturday due to what the team called an illness he’s been battling. That meant Cook was the lone returning starter from last year’s NCAA Tournament Midwest Regional final game against Louisville.
A junior point guard, Cook vowed his team learned something valuable against Drury it will carry on to the court against Davidson.
“We had to get better and we did that,” Cook said. “We are going to be ready Friday.”