COLUMBIA, S.C. — There’s no teacher like experience.
All week long, Duke’s coaches and veterans preached to the Blue Devils’ talented freshmen about the type of effort, execution and focus and it would take to win in the NCAA Tournament.
Those words didn’t carry nearly the weight of North Dakota State’s early onslaught, frustrating Duke with its pack-line defense, knocking down big shots and battling on the boards before Duke pulled away in the second half for an 85-62 victory on Friday night in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
Favored by 27 points and considered 99-percent likely to win the game by Ken Pomeroy’s advanced statistics, the Blue Devils instead looked 100 percent disinterested in the opening minutes.
“I think we just came out thinking it was going to be easy,” freshman guard Cam Reddish said.
With the Bison putting as many bodies in the lane as they could, the Blue Devils — ranked 338th nationally in 3-point shooting — were content to stand around the perimeter, jacking up six 3-point attempts in the game’s first five minutes.
This looked nothing like the Duke team that put the college basketball world on noticewhen it ran, jumped and pressed its way to an ACC Tournament title last week with Zion Williamson back in the lineup for the first time since mid-February.
Even Williamson had trouble getting much going in Duke’s stagnant offense, scoring 10 points in the first half simply by outjumping his defenders. That athleticism didn’t make much of a difference for the Blue Devils, fifth nationally in rebounding, as they were beat 19-14 on the boards in the first half.
“Really, we just weren’t going hard enough; that’s all,” junior Javin DeLaurier said. “They were doing a good job of making contact and we didn’t come to play our best in the first half.”
After trailing for more than eight minutes, Duke rallied to take a 31-27 lead at the half, but Coach Mike Krzyzewski wasn’t feeling warm and fuzzy about the little bit of momentum his team had gathered.
Reddish didn’t share the details of the conversation, but smiled when he said Krzyzewski was a “little bit” animated.
Perhaps most importantly for the young Blue Devils, it wasn’t just Krzyzewski who was disappointed in the performance, with several players speaking up.
“We’re maturing day by day and realizing how important this is and we can’t take any games for granted,” Reddish said.
Whatever was said by whomever said it at halftime obviously worked as Duke flipped the switch, found its tempo and started running with Williamson running off six points in the first two minutes of the half, throwing down a nasty dunk to go along with a coast-to-coast steal and layup that blew the roof of Colonial Life Arena, with a Reddish 3-pointer in between.
The energy that had been missing in the first half arrived in the form of a power surge that put the Bison away for good and the Blue Devils suddenly looked like the favorite to win their sixth national title, delivering a 30-8 run to start the half.
“We were just more ourselves,” Krzyzewski said. “We started it being jump shooters and just being fast break. Most of our possession had no passes.”
Freshman point guard Tre Jones gave an honest assessment of the Blue Devils’ early struggles.
“I put that blame on me,” he said. “In the first half, I was just bringing it up really slow and I didn’t have the best tempo. In the second half, I picked up our energy and guys were able to pick me up at halftime.”
Ultimately, Williamson scored 15 of his 25 points in the second half while fellow freshman RJ Barrett dominated with 26 points and 14 rebounds as Duke advanced to the second round on Sunday where it will meet the winner of the UCF-VCU matchup.
“They really shocked us, punched us in the mouth and knocked us back a little bit,” DeLaurier said. “If we continued to play the way we were playing, we might end up losing. We looked around and decided to make a change.”
It might not have been the dominant, high-flying performance that the Blue Devils expected for 40 minutes, but it was more valuable than any blowout.