Taking the Fight to Duke
It's going to get lost in the collapse at the end, but for 30 minutes on Thursday night the Pack proved its capable of beating anyone.
The team came to Cameron and took it right at the Blue Devils, tearing apart their defense with dribble penetration and great execution. They got open looks, hit their shots and rarely did the Duke defense even seem to bother them. On the defensive end C.J. Leslie was a monster, single-handedly owning the paint. The guards only helped off of Duke's poor shooters, as the Quinn Cook's and Josh Hairston's of the roster took shots instead of Austin Rivers and Seth Curry. It was a solid defensive game plan, well executed.
It was a terrible ending, but the Pack certainly looked like an NCAA Tournament team on Thursday night. It will be a disappointment if they can't get enough wins to make it, simply because it's a team that's good enough to belong.
When he wasn't saddled with foul trouble, Leslie was the most dominant player on the court on Thursday night. He made the Plumlee brothers look silly on multiple occasions as his length and athleticism, couple with his intensity, were no match for Miles or Mason.
Leslie finished the game with six blocks, many of them of the emphatic nature, and also pulled down nine rebounds. Leslie showed how amazing he can be when he turns the dial all the way up, and if he can keep up that intensity into the March the Pack will be in much better shape.
Really, trouble doesn't do the Pack's foul situation justice. This was a foul apocalypse. With 10 minutes left in the game the Pack had 48% of its season scoring and 52% of its season rebounding sitting on the bench with four fouls. As you might expect, Duke dominated the final 10 minutes of the game – they cut the lead to 11 before Leslie returned and then to single digits before Howell and CJ Williams came back.
Williams, who has been one of the Pack's most consistent players, was a complete non-factor because of foul trouble. At least two of those fouls – the third and the fourth – were 50/50 calls at best. But when your second best shooter and best perimeter defender plays just 12 minutes, it's tough to win a game. It would have been interesting to see a game where neither team got in any foul trouble, but the officials were not going to let that happen on Thursday.
The Pack's problem wasn't so much the number of turnovers they gave up on offense – 15 in a 72-possession game isn't good but it's around the team's season average. The problem was the lack of turnovers they forced. The Devils turned the ball over on just six percent of its possessions against the Pack, meaning that State had very few opportunities for transition baskets. It also means that Duke was pretty much getting a shot on every possession, and the way Duke shoots eventually they were going to start hitting those shots.
Yes, Duke hit a ton of shots in the final 10 minutes. But the Pack's inability to get good looks in those final minutes was even more damaging. The Pack went up 61-41 with 11:33 left in the game, and from that point forward managed just 12 points. Lorenzo Brown spent a good portion of that time as the only person on the floor who could do anything offensively. Guys weren't getting open and weren't making plays, so Brown was forced to try to answer Duke basket for basket.
Brown spent so much energy trying to keep the Pack from collapsing late in the game that it was any wonder he was still standing by the final buzzer. His mental collapse in the last minute, while not excusable, is certainly understandable.
PLAYER OF THE GAME
Alex Johnson provided an unexpected spark off the bench for the Pack in Cameron, one of the major reasons why the team was able to open up a 20-point lead on the Blue Devils. He softened the blow of C.J. Williams' foul trouble, hitting 3-of-4 from downtown and 5-of-8 overall to finish with 13 points. It was good to see Johnson, who has struggled all year with his shot, provide poise and leadership in a big road game for the Pack.
Honorable mention goes to CJ Leslie for his tremendous work on the defensive end. He was a maniac around the rim, finishing with six blocks and dominating both the Plumlee brothers. But foul trouble limited his playing time and was one of the major reasons Duke was able to rally in the final 10 minutes.
"I think we just proved to ourselves and the world that we can play with teams like this."