DURHAM, N.C.—The Duke Blue Devils sprinted to a 14-4 lead in the first seven minutes Thursday night at Cameron Indoor Stadium, capitalizing on a series of turnovers and a spate of poor shooting from the field by the visiting Tulsa Golden Hurricane. But then the torpor set in: During the most consistently quiet half this season in Durham, the Devils let Tulsa not only creep within reach during the next 10 minutes but even tie the game at 28-28 late in the first half.
During that span, Duke missed five three-pointers and allowed the Hurricane to move to the basket quickly. In fact, in the first half, Tulsa shot against Duke 35 times, just one attempt shy of a season high against the Devils. Still, though the Hurricane hit a higher percentage from the floor than the Devils, Duke headed into the locker room with a four-point lead.
“I thought we felt we were going to be able to knock them out, and they’re not a team that’s going to get knocked out,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said of the first half after the game. “We looked rushed.”
The start of the second half didn’t look any better: Tulsa’s excellent seven-foot senior center Jerome Jordan began the half with another dunk. Tulsa followed with two free throws from guard Justin Hurtt. But as they’ve often done this season, when this streaky Duke team turned it on, they refused to relent. Over the next six minutes, Duke presented one of its most balanced stretches of basketball yet this season, with points, a steal and an assist from Brian Zoubek, an assist from Lance Thomas, points and an assist from Mason Plumlee, two blocks from Kyle Singler, two three-pointers from Jon Scheyer and strong contributions from Nolan Smith on both ends of the floor. At the nine-minute mark, the Devils were up by 20 points.
Not only did Duke’s shooting improve in the second half, with their percentage jumping nearly 10 points, but their defense also tightened up. While Tulsa shot 37 percent from the field in the first half, they landed only 26 percent in the second. Nolan Smith limited Ben Uzoh, Tulsa’s leading scorer on the season, to only eight points, though he’s averaged more than 16 per game this season. And though Jordan topped the Hurricane tonight with 12 points, he spent most of the game in foul trouble.
“We tried to keep it out of the paint. In the first half, they were getting it in the paint relentlessly,” said senior Lance Thomas, who—along with fellow starters Jon Scheyer and Brian Zoubek—has only one game left in Cameron. “We had to play stronger in the post and get the big guy [Jordan] in foul trouble. The best way to defend him is to have him sitting down.”
Duke’s big men made important contributions Thursday night. Thomas’ defense continues to be among the most fundamentally consistent in the country, and Brian Zoubek grabbed his third double-double of the season.
The loss stretches Tulsa’s losing streak to four and continues to cut into the team’s bid at a spot in the NCAA tournament, while it extends Duke’s winning streak to seven and affords the Devils their 13th win against a non-conference team. In short, the convincing win pushes them still closer to a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.
Each season, every team receives two open slots in their schedule that can be filled with games or used for rest and practice. Duke’s first such break went to a disastrous loss against Georgetown in January. Krzyzewski says the second such slot—this victory at home versus Tulsa—gives his team invaluable experience against a team that’s good enough to make the tournament, if not more.
“If you get a chance to play against two players the caliber of Uzoh and Jordan, that’s a good experience for our basketball team,” he said. “We have found this is good for us—at least we like doing it.”