Duke freshman Jalen Johnson returned to full strength Tuesday, but the Blue Devils were unable to leave Pittsburgh with a victory in spite of the best performance of his young career.
The Blue Devils, who trailed by as many 15 points in the second half, put together a valiant effort over the final 16 minutes, but ultimately fell to Pitt, 79-73.
After falling behind by those 15 points with 16:29 to go in the second half, Duke responded by outscoring the Panthers 16-7 over the next five and half minutes, cutting the lead to six – 62-56. Things stalled briefly, but the Blue Devils put together another run and eventually climbed to within two points twice – once with 5:38 left on the clock and the other with 2:03 remaining.
Unfortunately for them, they could never complete the comeback.
“Jeff’s team is very good,” head coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “And they probably have a player of the year in the conference in (Justin) Champagnie. He’s terrific. And he and (Au’Diese) Toney give them that toughness and the experience that other guys can build off of. In saying that, we had our opportunities to win the game.”
While the comeback bid was a positive, and something Duke can build upon, the frustration for Krzyzewski and his players was evident. The topic of discussion following the game was not about how the team fought its way back, it was more centered on yet another lackluster start.
In what seems to be an unfortunate, yet developing theme, Duke fell behind Pitt 8-0 over the first two-plus minutes of the game. And from that point forward, sans four brief lead changes and three ties, the Blue Devils were playing from behind.
Sophomore Wendell Moore Jr., who was Duke’s second leading scorer with 15 points, was disheartened by the team’s effort to start the game.
“We shouldn’t put ourself in that place in the first position,” a clearly irritated Moore said. “The last two games we started out not too good, going down 10, 12 early. In the second half we were down 15 early. And we shouldn’t have to keep fighting back. We should be the team that comes out and fights first. We should be the team that goes up 10-0 and make the other team fight back.”
Oftentimes, post-loss comments from players are a regurgitation of what Krzyzewski says to the team in the locker room before opening up the room to the media. In fact, it sounds rehearsed at times.
While this was clearly the message that was presented to them following the loss by Krzyzewski and the rest of the coaching staff, there was emotion attached to Moore’s response.
And to be honest, much of that likely comes from disappointing their coach. Typically, such efforts might draw more anger from Krzyzewski, and maybe it did in the locker room, but he was subdued following the loss. Player responses to the two – anger and disappointment – are often very different.
Johnson, who finished with 24 points, 15 rebounds, seven assists, four blocks, two steals and zero turnovers, didn’t want to talk much about his individual effort. Instead, he wanted to talk about how he and his team didn’t do their job to start the game.
“It’s the game plan before the game,” Johnson said when asked what Duke has to do to get off to better starts. “The main thing on the board was be hungry, have toughness – we’ve got to box out. It wasn’t foreign to us.
“We knew the game plan and what we needed to do to win. We just didn’t execute it like we should’ve.”
Again, their coach’s disappointment seemed to have hit home with the team.
“The most disappointing thing for me was our start,” Krzyzewski said. “We have practiced so hard, tried different things, and for me to have to call a timeout after two minutes is not acceptable. It’s just not acceptable. You’re down 10 to nothing or whatever it was. To me that was the most disappointing thing – is how we started.”
In addition to his frustration with Duke’s slow start, Krzyzewski was not all that pleased with the Blue Devils inability to complete free throw opportunities, or on the flip side, keep the Panthers off the line.
Duke committed 24 fouls, giving Pitt 37 free throw attempts in the game. In fact, the Panthers made more free throws (24) than Duke attempted (19). Pitt made just 64.9% of those tries, but the Blue Devils were worse, making only 11 of their attempts, good for just 57.9%.
“When you go up, you’ve got to hit both of one and ones, not one of them,” Krzyzewski said. “When you drive the ball if you’re fouled, you’ve got to put that damn thing in every once in a while … We’re 11 for 19 from the free throw line. And in just some critical times.
“To their credit, they executed right at the end of clocks at times. And they got to the foul line. They shot 37 free throws. We’ve got to do a better job of blocking out. The rebounds were even, but we fouled a lot. For them to get 37 free throws, you’re not going to win very many games that way.”
In the first half, point guard Jeremy Roach kept Duke in the game, scoring 10 of his 11 points. No one else really provided a steady effort in the first half. Roach disappeared in the second half, though, missing all six of his shots and making just one of two free throws.
Matthew Hurt was a non-factor, scoring just four points in the first half. He eventually finished the game with 13 points, but he was not the impact player Duke needed him to be.
Duke’s predominant second half lineup featuring Johnson, Moore, Hurt, Roach and Steward, began to find a rhythm. Most of that was due to the play of Johnson, who scored 18 of his points, and grabbed 10 of his rebounds in the second half alone. He also posted four of his seven assists and all four of his blocks in the half.
He was the aggressor, and created for the Blue Devils all half long. While there was not a whole lot that Krzyzewski was happy with, his freshman’s efforts was one of them.
“We hit on a good unit, and they put us in a position to win the game,” Krzyzewski said. “That performance (from Jalen Johnson) put us in a position to win. That is unexpected because we haven’t had him. He’s just probably had about four practices.
“He was a great playmaker for us and he defended our bucket for us.”
Even still, the reflection of the game was one of disappointment. Disappointment in the start. Disappointment in the finish.
Now for Duke, it’s about using the emotion generated from such a loss and turning it into positives.
“It was a tough loss for us, because that group did play winning basketball and put us in a position where we had a chance to win,” Krzyzewski added.
“We can’t afford to be down. We have to respond.”