Leading up to Wednesday night’s game at Virginia Tech, Jahlil Okafor wasn’t healthy enough to practice. His sprained left ankle was still swollen and stiff, so that left Duke with just seven scholarship players.
Doesn’t exactly give the Blue Devils enough bodies for a scrimmage.
“A big thing, for me, is I’ve had to really tone down practices. As a result, you get slippage,” coach Mike Krzyzewski said after Duke’s 91-86 overtime win at Virginia Tech. “The main slippage is on defense when you don’t practice as much. We’ve got to pace our guys.
“So it’s not like you’re going against each other real hard. We’re in it for the long haul, and you have to do those things, but you’re going to get slippage. We had it, and then their offense was better than our defense.”
The Hokies (10-18, 2-13 ACC) turned in the best shooting half any team has posted in 28 games against Duke this year, making 69.6 percent of their first-half shots. After falling into a 15-4 hole, Virginia Tech closed the half by scoring on 16 of its last 18 possessions (and one of those empty possessions was the result of Devin Wilson stepping out of bounds in the backcourt).
“We started off the game really well, and we were in our three-quarter court press,” Krzyzewski said. “And when we subbed, we started playing it horribly, to where we were just leaving guys.”
Just over half (20 of 39) of the Hokies’ first half points came in the paint – this from a team that only has one player over 6-foot-7 logging regular minutes. The work near the basket was the result of Virginia Tech guards spreading out the Duke man-to-man defense and creating driving lanes.
Jalen Hudson, a freshman guard who has just three starts and played one minute in the Hokies’ previous game at N.C. State, had 11 points at halftime, shooting 5-of-6 from the field. He finished with a career-high 23 off the bench – nearly quadrupling his season average (5.8 points per game).
Two of Hudson’s misses, though, came at the end of regulation – he couldn’t get his driving layup attempt, or the tip in, to drop before the buzzer sounded.
Krzyzewski was particularly proud of that stop.
“We didn’t play well defensively,” Krzyzewski said. “Everything we tried, they had a counter to, until the last play of regulation. It’s the second time in two weeks we’ve won an overtime game, and the other team had the ball on the last possession. I’m proud of my guys to be able to make a stop at that time.”
The other stop Krzyzewski was referring to was against then-No. 15 North Carolina. Marcus Paige missed a contested jumper at the end of regulation, and J.P. Tokoto missed a jumper from the baseline in overtime.
The Hokies aren’t exactly the Tar Heels in terms of talent, so while Brice Johnson and Kennedy Meeks and Marcus Paige may be expected to find offensive success, the same isn’t true of Jalen Hudson, Adam Smith and Ahmed Hill. The Tar Heels are the 14th-most efficient offensive team in the country, according to college basketball analyst Ken Pomeroy. Virginia Tech is 135th.
No doubt any undersized mid-major that draws Duke in NCAA tournament play will replay tape of this game, watching how Hokies coach Buzz Williams pushed the Blue Devils to the edge. But for the general fan, the details of this result will just fade into the background, thanks to Okafor.
Okafor’s 30 points on 13-of-18 shooting were a new career high (in 37 minutes), and they certainly were the difference between a win and a loss. He said after the game that his ankle felt fine, but he didn’t know he was going to play until he got into the locker room before the game.
“My coaches had told me to let them know if I wanted to play or not,” he said. “Once I got in the locker room and saw my teammates get ready, there was no way I wasn’t playing today.”
“If he would have said, ‘I don’t think so,’ then we wouldn’t have played him,” Krzyzewski said. “And we would have lost.”