No. 6 Duke edges frisky East Carolina team at home
DURHAM, N.C. — No. 6 Duke might have raised some eyebrows with an 83-74 win over East Carolina that was closer than the final score would indicate.
Some of that is fair, as some of the Blue Devils' issues so far in the (very, very) early going crept up again.
But some of it, according to Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski — maybe even most of it — was just how well ECU played.
Coach K didn't blame the back-to-back games, or an off night for his team (Duke shot 47.4 percent and hit its first 11 field goals), or anything like that; and Krzyzewski refused to take the bait when asked.
"This is not about Duke not playing — we played hard tonight, and we played hard last night," Krzyzewski said. "Our team was up to play, they respected the heck out of East Carolina. Don’t undersell what they did by saying we weren't — we were ready, and we played hard.
"I thought we brought great energy, but so did they. So did they. This was a really good basketball game."
The Blue Devils have made their name under Krzyzewski on overplaying some on the perimeter, not allowing guards to get good looks at three-pointers or making sure penetration and/or passing around the perimeter is a challenge.
Duke wants to push teams out of their offense and generally make opponents uncomfortable in that realm.
But Kansas' guards had a field day in the lane against the Blue Devils in the Champions Classic, but Duke wasn’t going to face a lot of teams with the caliber of talent Kansas has, and it did a great job of making UNC-Asheville's guards’ lives miserable on Tuesday night.
And for awhile for East Carolina, it was miserable. Until it wasn't.
From the 2:34 mark of the first half until the 6:59 mark of the second, ECU either scored in the paint, at the foul line or on a three-pointer on 15 of 28 possessions (and scored on 17 of 28 trips overall). Which is what allowed the Pirates to erase an 18-point deficit and get it down to one.
"Just the spacing they had. They had shooters, (Richmond and Campbell), that we couldn't leave. So (Robinson and Williams) saw a lot of space, and they made some tough shots," Duke point guard Quinn Cook said. "They weren't like we were just playing horrible defense. They made some tough shots.”
Duke is always going to try to shut down an opponent’s best player(s). Sometimes, that means role players step up and have great games. But generally, overmatched teams come to Cameron and can’t survive without their best options.
The Pirates’ top three scorers — Akeem Richmond, Paris Campbell and Caleb White — all came in averaging double figures through four games. They finished 30 points combined on 6 of 22 shooting.
Richmond in particular has been the Pirates' best three-point threat throughout his ECU career, and he was averaging nearly nearly 12 three-point ATTEMPTS per game alone (and making over 38 percent). But Duke let him get just six three-point attempts (he made three).
But Prince Williams and Antonio Robinson had 37 points combined entering the game against Duke on 11 of 34 shooting. The duo combined for 28 points against the Blue Devils on 11 of 28 shooting in Tuesday’s game alone.
"I have to get back to (ECU head coach) Jeff (Lebo), how good of a coach he is," Krzyzewski said. “He put a team out there that could beat us, that was different than the team that has played the first four games for him. Those kids got a rhythm and a confidence level and they probably found something tonight, because they played great. It took some great plays like that to beat them.”
UNC-Asheville used a matchup zone against Duke that was an interesting look, to be sure, and it forced Duke into some uncharacteristic sloppiness at times.
East Carolina started out in man-to-man defense, and Cook scored at will, beating his man helplessly off the dribble each time downcourt. So the Pirates switched to a matchup zone, and eventually to a plain old 2-3 zone, clogging up the middle.
"They kind of raised it and they baited us into throwing the lobs. They wanted us to throw lobs, which was tough, especially when the game is so tight. You don’t want to make that type of pass," Duke's Rodney Hood, who had a game-high 30 points, said.
"Once we were able to get it to the middle, we were able to attack. Last night, (UNC-Asheville was) taller and bigger in the middle so we couldn't get to there but today, we still could’ve finished more, but we took it to the big man’s chest."
Krzyzewski was asked about the lobs — what Hood probably meant by that was passes to try to get it over the top of the clogged-in zone — and while he didn’t agree about that specific detail, he did agree about the importance of getting to the middle.
"I don’t think we threw that many lobs. What it does, it stands you up a little bit. In the last eight minutes, we started penetrating more and got to the line," Krzyzewski said. "When we did get close to the bucket, we couldn’t finish the play tonight. A good part of it is their defense, but hopefully we can finish a little bit better than that."
Duke wants to run up and down the court this year and be a high-flying, transition-oriented team. Opponents are concentrating on slowing that aspect of Duke’s game down, which is easier said than done.
But it's something Duke is still learning to overcome in the halfcourt.
"They kind of slowed the game down,"said Parker. "Our game is fast break, get out quick, secondary options, if they want to stop that. We chose to keep attacking the rim, even though they went 2-3 (zone). They kind of stopped us from doing what we usually do.”
Speaking of Parker, he faced said game pressure very well, showing himself to be quite the big-moment player early in his college career. ECU was able to get into the paint seemingly at will, but not from the 6:59 mark on, when it scored on just six of its final 14 possessions, missing seven shots. Of those seven missed shots, Parker blocked four of them.
"Man, that was key," Hood said. "Those are winning plays, and that’s what we expect of him. He’s a great player, and that’s what big-time players do - they make winning plays."
And Krzyzewski let his guys — even the younger, less experienced ones, like Parker and even Hood, to a degree — stay in to feel that game pressure, and to cope with it and get past it.
"We’ve all been in situations where for moments, you’re not as confident about something that you normally do in a confident manner, and then you need to break through it," Krzyzewski said. "Our guys were able to break through it while they were playing instead of talking about it after the game and congratulating East Carolina on a win."
ECU had come back from down 17 points to Norfolk State the night before to win the game, and Duke knew what it was up against.
Once the Pirates withstood Duke’s initial barrage of offense and found itself down 18, they did nothing but fight and claw and scratch as hard as they could until they got back in the game.
For awhile, Duke looked shaken. And so Krzyzewski settled his team down.
"No pressure on them. All the pressure’s on us," Hood said. "We were playing tight and when we got to the huddle, (Krzyzewski) told us to quit playing tight, get the ball to the middle, get to free-throw line, step up and knock the free throws down. We were able to make some plays defensively down the stretch that really pulled us out.”
Hood is listed in the box score as having played all 40 minutes, and he, Parker and Cook played all but one minute combined of the second half. Tyler Thornton played 17 second-half minutes until fouling out, while an under-the-weather Rasheed Sulaimon added 12 gritty minutes.
Krzyzewski wanted his best and most important players to overcome their physical and emotional fatigue and find a way. And they did.
"All of a sudden, (ECU stays) in there, they're playing really well and now there’s an incredible among of game pressure. You can cut it with a knife," Krzyzewski said.
"I'm proud of my guys. We responded. Because they never stopped playing well. It wasn’t like somebody let up or they made a mistake or a turnover or anything like that. They were absolutely terrific. What great kids they have, and we have great kids. It was a heck of a basketball team."
Hood in particular had a nice individual moment; after making 4 of 7 free throws in the loss to Kansas (4-of-5 in the second half, to be fair), he made 12 of 12 against ECU, many late.
"I put a lot of work into my free throws and it’s got to become a strength for our team. Me and guys like Jabari are going to be there a lot with the way we play, trying to get to the line," Hood said. "Just step up there and hit it. They go in, they go in. They don’t, they don’t. You’ve just got to believe in your work."