NEW YORK It felt like a home game for Duke, Jabari Parker said of the atmosphere at Madison Square Garden, the world’s most famous arena.
There were 45 scouts, and several NBA general managers in attendance for the Blue Devils’ 80-63 win against UCLA. Bruce Springsteen was there, too, a few rows back from the court, a Yankees cap pulled low on his head. A big-game atmosphere at any time, but especially so for a December nonconference men’s college basketball game.
But for Parker, all of the hoopla wasn’t that big of a deal.
“I didn’t pay attention. To tell you the truth, I really don’t care about the scouts,” he said. “The scouts were more important when I was in high school, looking at the college coaches. Now it’s more important that I focus on our team and what we want to accomplish. Everything will take care of itself.”
When asked about Springsteen, much to the chagrin of the media around him, Parker said he wasn’t familiar with his music because “he was ahead of my time.”
No matter. He has plenty of basketball skills to make up for any shortcomings in music appreciation.
Parker recorded his third double-double, leading No. 8 Duke with 23 points and 10 rebounds and added five assists. He was far from the only one who shined. Quinn Cook scored 14 points, recorded five assists and had a career-high eight steals. Reserve Amile Jefferson contributed 11 points, seven rebounds and two blocks. And Rasheed Sulaimon had the breakthrough game everyone has been waiting all season for, playing 18 minutes, scoring eight points (thanks to 2-of-4 shooting from behind the 3-point arc) and adding five rebounds and four assists. He was all smiles afterward, saying it felt like a huge weight off his shoulders.
It was a game heavy on offense, with both teams often pushing the tempo. The Blue Devils (9-2) set a season-high for 3-point attempts with 32. Duke converted on 34.4 percent of them (11-for-32), but it connected when it mattered most, during a second-half run that built a 10-point cushion.
With the score 45-45 with 16 minutes, 22 seconds left, the teams started to run up and down the floor, trading turnovers on four straight possessions before the Blue Devils broke the streak with a Cook steal and layup. After a media timeout, Duke settled in.
Four of the next five Duke baskets had assists. The Blue Devils made a few nice passes out of the high post, setting up shooters for open 3s. During that stretch, the Bruins missed four 3-point attempts, allowing Duke to run out to a 60-49 lead before UCLA coach Steve Alford called timeout.
That was the opposite of how the first half had played out – it was UCLA hitting the timely 3-point shots and the Blue Devils who were coming up empty. UCLA went on an 18-5 first-half run that tied the score at 26 with 6:26 left in the half. Five of UCLA’s six first-half 3s came after falling behind by 10. The Bruins made 60 percent of their attempts during the first 20 minutes but went just 2-for-12 in the second.
Duke didn’t try to challenge the Bruins’ zone during the first half, firing up 18 3-point attempts (and making six), compared to 16 shots from inside the arc. The 18 first-half 3-point attempts nearly equaled Duke’s average of 20 for an entire game. Half of Duke’s shots from the field Thursday came from behind the arc.
Another indicator of the Blue Devils’ willingness to shoot from the outside: Duke attempted just one first-half free throw, which came on following a Parker basket that drew a foul. For the game, Duke went to the line just 11 times.
But that worked just fine against the Bruins (9-2), who couldn’t keep pace while shooting 34.5 percent from the field during the second half. Duke focused on getting back in transition quicker, limiting the Bruins’ easy looks. The Blue Devils were able to hold UCLA’s leading scorer, Jordan Adams, to a season-low 10 points.
Defense will continue to be a work in progress for all of the Blue Devils, and Parker especially, whom coach Mike Krzyzewski called a natural, with the disclaimer that he does get on him about his defense.
Still, it’s hard not to marvel at Parker’s game.
“It’s amazing. It’s amazing. He has a special gift, man, a special gift,” Cook said of Parker. “It’s just a pleasure for me to have him on my team. I try to maximize it everyday.”
Just as it should be for anyone who performs on the big stage like a boss.
Keeley: 919-829-4556; Twitter: @laurakeeley
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