No lead is safe for in-state rivals when taking on the unpredictable Blue Devils, as North Carolina discovered last week and NC State learned Thursday.
Duke overcame a 20-point deficit with 11:33 left to play to beat the neighboring Wolfpack 78-73, closing the game on a spectacular 37-12 run. But all this game really did was raise more questions about the No. 5 Devils than it answered.
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Yes, Duke now knows it can overcome large deficits against quality teams. It ripped off a 13-2 run to close out UNC in the Dean Dome eight nights ago, and on this day took it to an NC State team that has passed the NCAA tournament eye test all season, but came in desperate for a victory to impress the selection committee.
But Duke (22-4, 9-2 in ACC) has also too often fallen behind by a variety of margins, including nearly every home conference game, which has cost them a couple times. Unless fixed, this problem makes the prospect of winning six consecutive games in March seemingly impossible to consider.
Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, however, was in no mood to discuss any concerns about his club.
“You know what’s a concern for me today is the celebration of a great win,” Krzyzewski said. “Whatever string of things happened — we’re 22-4, we’ve been in the top five of the RPI all year, and we’re not a perfect team, but dammit, we’re a good team.”
For 32-plus minutes, NC State (18-8, 7-4) was making an emphatic case to those NCAA folks.
The Wolfpack led 46-30 at the half, even though veteran starters C.J. Williams, Richard Howell and Scott Wood combined for just four field goals. Alex Johnson gave the Pack a huge lift off the bench, but as fouls mounted in the second half, first-year head coach Mark Gottfried opted to have his team pull back some.
Instead of aggressively going at Duke’s suspect defense, State began to play into its hands.
“Yeah, I agree, it helped some,” said Duke’s Seth Curry, who scored a game-high 26 points, 21 after halftime.
Most of NC State’s fouls — which limited Williams to 12 minutes and permanently shelved Howell and Leslie late in the game — weren’t committed going at the basket. They were silly fouls away from the hoop and physical ones around the lane on defense.
Whatever it was, Duke took advantage. But more than the foul situation, Duke simply raised its game.
Some pressing, and a performance by Curry that Krzyzewski called “heroic” because the junior played on an injured ankle that was aggravated twice on the night, lifted the Blue Devils to another improbable win. And the thing is, these Devils are getting used to winning like this. They knew they’d overcome the deficit.
“I could just feel it. I could just feel it,” freshman Austin Rivers said. “I felt confident. I love those games. I love those situations. That’s what you play basketball for, and that’s what a lot of guys on our team love to do.”
The danger in doing this too often is that the players might take for granted the next time they fall behind and simply expect the tide to turn. NC State was willingly complicit, but the next foe might not be so giving.
“We keep trying to be that second-half team, but that’s kind of been our story all year – we’ve inconsistent as a team,” Curry said. “We have to find out who we are and be a (both halves) team.”
And that’s really the story here. It might be past mid-February, but Duke is still trying to find itself. Fortunately, the Blue Devils aren’t alone, and at least they’re doing so while closing out games as impressively as they have the last few.
There’s some championship fiber within these kids. It just needs unleashing earlier in games.