Mike Krzyzewski’s Duke basketball team faced a halftime deficit for the first time this season Wednesday night.
Not only that, but the four-point hole the No. 2 Blue Devils found themselves in would double shortly after halftime.
In the locker room during intermission, Krzyzewski wasn’t worried but he sensed this could be a key moment for this particular group.
“Part of becoming a really good team is learning that in games like this,” Krzyzewski said, “you’ve got to do the little things. You have to do them or you’re punished by a good team. They’ll punish you.”
Duke indeed showed it not only can be a really good team, but is a really good team by rallying from eight points down in the second half to beat Virginia Tech 76-65 at Cameron Indoor Stadium.
Against a veteran Hokies team well drilled by coach Mike Young, the Blue Devils didn’t waver when faced with that deficit in their first ACC game.
“You never grow together unless you go through it together in those moments,” Duke junior forward and team captain Wendell Moore said. “That moment when we went down eight in the second half was a huge moment for us. We definitely could have folded with our backs against the wall. But we fought back and continued to fight back the rest of the 14, 16 minutes of that game.”
It also helped that their Hall of Fame coach, starting his final run through the ACC schedule before retirement, realized what he’d been doing thus far in the game wasn’t going well.
Virginia Tech’s ball movement, plus having 6-9 senior forward Keve Aluma positioned on offense away from the basket, rendered Duke’s 7-1 sophomore center Mark Williams and 6-9 reserve center Theo John ineffective.
“It doesn’t mean we’re not going to have a big lineup,” Krzyzewski said. “But in this game, it wasn’t working. It just wasn’t working.”
So, early in the second half, Krzyzewski replaced Williams with 6-7 reserve forward AJ Griffin. That allowed 6-10 freshman Paolo Banchero, who is a solid ball handler even at his size, to become Duke’s biggest player on the floor.
On offense, that meant Duke (11-1, 1-0 ACC) could go with five-out sets to spread the court and take advantage of having five ball handlers on the court.
Defensively, the Blue Devils could switch at all five positions. Suddenly, those open lanes to the basket the Hokies had used to take a 42-34 lead disappeared.
“We defended better with that lineup,” Krzyzewski said. “So that was a big thing. And then we move the ball better.”
Duke unleashed a 27-7 run, took the lead for good and was never seriously challenged again.
Krzyzewski called it “stretch of vintage Duke basketball.”
Banchero thrived offensively, driving to the basket rather than settling for jumpers. He scored 17 of his 23 points in the second half.
Griffin scored 13 points, with 10 coming in the second half.
The Blue Devils hit 12 of their first 16 shots after halftime, part of a 61.5% shooting effort in the second half.
“We just attacked the rim more,” Banchero said. “We locked in on the defensive end. That was probably the main thing. That defensive effort carried over to the offensive end. I think starting inside, attacking the basket kind of opened it up for some 3s and other opportunities, getting fouled and stuff like that. Just being in attack mode.”
The performance left Krzyzewski downright giddy and, as he said, not by anything he had necessarily done. Sure, he switched the lineup but the players made plays rather than just running something the coaching staff designed.
“It was exciting to see kids do that, and it’s not on us, it’s on them,” Krzyzewski said. “That’s not us doing it. We grew up a lot in that second half. It was a big time game for us.”