The 10th-ranked Clemson Tigers absolutely slaughtered the third-ranked Duke Blue Devils Wednesday night at Littlejohn Coliseum. The 74-47 affair was Duke’s worst loss since their 30-point defeat at the hands of UNLV in the 1990 Championship Game.
Clemson won so handily for a reason. They played their most stifling defensive game in recent memory, as they limited Duke to 31 percent shooting and forced 17 turnovers. Duke only earned seven assists throughout the game.
The Tigers’ incredible defensive pressure was created by their energy. They went after the ball like bloodthirsty wolves pursue an animal they plan to eat for dinner. They harnessed their tireless energy to enact a brick wall of man-to-man coverage and full-court pressure.
If Duke was trying to get the ball in from out of bounds, there was a Tigers defender all over any Blue Devil that tried to break free from his man to receive the inbounds pass.
Once the pass was in, particularly if the ball went into a corner, two Clemson defenders would converge on the ball with a vengeance. They would wave their arms wildly, looking to deflect any pass.
The only way to get away from the double-team would be taking a quick couple of dribbles to find a passing lane beside one of the defenders, and then get the ball out as quickly as possible. But this is where most of the Duke players committed a turnover.
Because the pressure on each ball handler was so intense, they were all too taken aback to make a good pass. Instead, most of the passes were soft tosses in the direction of the target. But Clemson, having a huge jump in their steps, always erupted into the passing lane and picked the ball off before storming down the court and hitting a shot.
Even if Duke managed to get a shot off, it was almost always contested. If a shot wasn’t blocked, it missed. The only jump shot I remember Duke getting off cleanly was a Kyle Singler three-pointer from a corner. But it still clanked off the rim and came down to a waiting Clemson player. Duke simply couldn’t score without giving everything they had.
Even Gerald Henderson, Duke’s star who normally plays better than normal in ACC games, didn’t get going until the game was well out of hand. He finished with 16 points.
I didn’t watch the whole game, so I didn’t know what the final score was until I saw the recap in my local newspaper. I discovered that the game had concluded with a final score of 74-47.
Duke scored only 21 points in the first half. As I watched Clemson continue to dominate on defense at the start of the second half (I DVR’d the second half of the game), I found myself wondering how Duke had even scored 47 points. I only got to watch the first few minutes of the second half before I had to leave for school. I don’t think Duke scored.
This loss dumbfounded Duke and its fans. I had never seen anything like it since I started watching Duke play around 2003. As I watched the game, I just stared in utter amazement at how Clemson played like a Duke team in top form, against the team they were modeled after.
But not only will this blowout sting in the short term, the foundation on which it was built could come back to bite Duke hard in the ACC and NCAA Tournaments. Teams will undoubtedly see the film from this game and tailor themselves to play this defense against Duke.
Unless Duke significantly improves at breaking the full-court press soon, they will pay a steep price for their inability to break it. This setback will keep them from earning what everyone thought was realistic only two weeks ago, when Duke was the top-ranked team in the nation heading into their game at Wake Forest—a trip to the Final Four.
Clemson’s tournament chances are now very good in the ACC, and much better for the NCAAs. They suddenly look like a legitimate ACC tournament contender. But don’t pencil them in for an automatic trip to the later rounds of the NCAA Tournament just yet.
They clearly brought their best for Duke, but they likely can’t keep playing with that kind of energy and enthusiasm until mid-March. While this huge win over Duke was a great help to their cause, one game of outplaying a higher-ranked team—even outplaying it badly—doesn’t make your entire year and case for your NCAA Tournament seeding.
Still, Clemson made a bold statement that will at least earn them much-deserved respect, and Duke now has a huge problem to fix if they want to get anywhere.