For the second time in three days, Duke let its NCAA tournament opponent creep back into the game in the second half before hitting the accelerator and running away with the game.
The No. 1-seeded Blue Devils are back in the Sweet 16 after their 68-49 victory against eighth-seeded San Diego State on Sunday in Time Warner Cable Arena. With the solid post play of Jahlil Okafor, the veteran savvy of senior guard Quinn Cook and the all-around performance of Justise Winslow, Duke dispatched the Aztecs to advance to a Friday meeting with Utah in Houston.
“They’re together. We have talent, we’re getting older by experience, and so we just -- like we got better here, these two games,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said two days after beating 16th-seeded Robert Morris by 29 points. “Our defense was really good here. We shared the ball well again tonight, 16 (assists) and nine (turnovers), really good. So we got better. If we can -- we’ve got to play Friday night. Hopefully we get better then and get a chance to play Sunday. It’s a young group of kids that have really had a great season and they still want to get better. So you’ve got a chance, we’ve got a chance.”
Duke (31-4) withstood an Aztecs comeback early in the second half that cut the Blue Devils’ lead to seven points. San Diego State rallied from a 13-point halftime deficit to get within seven following a Malik Pope 3-pointer with 12:42 remaining in the game. After a Duke miss, Trey Kell had a chance to make it a five-point game, but he missed a floater in the lane.
Cook then knocked down a 3-pointer go give Duke another double-digit lead before Krzyzewski called a timeout despite his team dampening the comeback.
“I thought like we had lost control of the game, they were in more control, the momentum of the game was theirs, and we had just seized it with that 3,” Krzyzewski said. “And I wanted to make sure, I just wanted to be the point guard for the timeout and say, look, we need stops, we’re going to go motion, let’s change this right now.”
San Diego State went the next six minutes without scoring a point.
“I think we believed then that we had a chance, but to their credit, I think they went back-to-back-to-back on us and 7 became 13 or 14 again and they expanded on it,” San Diego State coach Steve Fisher said. “We’re better than we played. Duke made us play that way to some degree, to a great degree, and when we had our open shots, the ones that went in yesterday didn’t go in today for us.”
The freshmen Okafor and Winslow controlled the game for Duke. Okafor, a top-five pick in this summer’s NBA draft should he leave school early, showed a bevy of post moves that fooled lengthy Aztec defenders.
He finished with a game-high 26 points on 12-of-16 shooting along with pulling down six rebounds as SDSU forward Skylar Spencer struggled to contain him.
“I tried to guard him without fouling him, but I’ll take the blame on that one,” Spencer said. “I allowed a lot of points from him so I feel like I let my team down in that area.
“I played against big players before but I haven’t played against anybody that big, with that skill set. It was kind of hard to fight with him and not get called for a foul, so I don’t know, I guess I’ll come back stronger next year or whatever, but I just tried to bang with him without getting called for a foul.”
Winslow had one of his most complete games of the season. The sometimes-spotty defender had 12 rebounds, four steals and three blocks to go along with his 13 points.
His two first-half blocks were turned into big plays by the Blue Devils. The first came midway through the first half when he blocked an Aqeel Quinn jumper and started a break. He passed to Tyus Jones who dished to Okafor for an emphatic one-handed slam.
Later, Winslow blocked a fast-break layup by O’Brien and Tyus Jones collected the loose ball. He passed ahead to Cook, who hit a corner 3-pointer, kissed his hands and holstered imaginary pistols as Duke went ahead 33-15.
“Justise, a lot, was on their best player, (JJ) O’Brien, who I think a lot of people feel is the best player in that conference, in the Mountain West,” Krzyzewski said. “And certainly that point forward, he’s a really good player. Justise won that individual battle, not that he was bad but Justise was so good, and it gave our guys more confidence.”
Jones: 704-358-5323; Twitter: @jjones9