Last season, the Duke faithful were concerned after struggles in early conference play against unranked opponents. A year later, it appears history may be repeating itself.
Jaron Blossomgame tied a game high with 17 points, and Landry Nnoko had a double-double as Clemson held home-court advantage in a 68-63 upset of the ninth-ranked Blue Devils on Wednesday.
The Tigers shot 45.5 percent from the floor and dominated the glass, out-rebounding Duke 36-24 overall. Their aggressive inside play also sent them to the line 13 times to Duke's seven, and the Blue Devils missed on five of those attempts.
With Duke down 66-63 and 15 seconds remaining, head coach Mike Krzyzewski drew up a play that got Matt Jones a solid look from three-point range. The shot caromed off the rim and into the hands of Avry Holmes, who was fouled and knocked down both free throws to seal it.
Clemson, which looked like an ACC also-ran after a difficult nonconference run, is off to a 4-1 start in conference play. The Tigers have won their last four games, including two in a row against ranked opponents. It's the Tigers' first time defeating two straight ranked teams since 1988, per ESPN Stats & Info. Their last three victories have come by a total of 10 points.
ESPN's Dick Vitale complimented the Tigers:
This week, Clemson head coach Brad Brownell reflected on the team's season so far.
“Early in the season, I thought we were too high and too low and didn’t keep it even-keel very often," Brownell said, per Aaron Brenner of the Post and Courier. "Oftentimes we’d try to do too many things one-on-one instead of trusting each other, whether it’s team offense or team defense. We’ve coached them a little better in that way.”
The Blue Devils were undone by a disappointing effort from the supporting cast. Grayson Allen had a team-high 17 points on 7-of-9 shooting, and Brandon Ingram needed only 11 shots for his 16 points. But it was an otherwise lackluster effort.
Luke Kennard missed seven of his 11 shots off the bench, Marshall Plumlee regressed to his regular-season mean after consecutive monster efforts against Virginia Tech and Wake Forest, and the combination of Jones and Derryck Thornton went 5-of-15 from the floor.
ESPN analyst and Duke alumnus Jay Williams offered his take on the team's struggles:
The Blue Devils were playing their eighth straight game without Amile Jefferson, a 6'9" senior who played an integral role in giving the team size and leadership. They're 6-2 in those contests but have had real trouble on the boards. In Utah's upset win in Durham, North Carolina, the Utes grabbed 56 boards to Duke's 38.
"Losing (Jefferson) [caused] us to do more different things than probably any other guy we would've lost," Krzyzewski said, per ESPN.com. "On the perimeter we have a little bit of depth, but Amile is a very unique player."
Jefferson's missing leadership was huge Wednesday, as Duke could not stop itself from giving up an early lead. The Blue Devils were up by as many as 12 and held the lead for nearly the entire first half before allowing Clemson to crawl back in.
The Tigers went on a 17-7 run in the final 6:08 of the first half to close within two points and kept it close throughout the second. They took a lead for the first time since the opening minutes on a Blossomgame field goal with 7:27 remaining and never trailed the rest of the way.
Six of the seven players who received minutes for Clemson scored at least seven points. Blossomgame led the way with 17 despite a 4-of-12 shooting night, making all eight of his free throws. The junior forward has missed at least half of his shots in each of the Tigers' last six games after doing so just once in their first 11.
Blossomgame spoke on the team's turnaround, per Brad Senkiw of the Independent Mail:
Blossomgame said that players-only meeting sparked the team. They took a break for the holidays and came back focused for ACC play.— Brad Senkiw (@BradSenkiw_AIM) January 14, 2016
Donte Grantham added 16 points and was responsible for three of Clemson's six three-pointers. Nnoko pounded the Blue Devils on the boards en route to a 12-point, 13-rebound, four-block night.
Duke will have to hope refuge will come at home.
Notre Dame is scheduled to visit Cameron Indoor Stadium on Saturday, and Syracuse visits two days later. Typically national powers, Notre Dame and Syracuse have a combined three conference wins thus far and appear headed for non-tournament seasons. The Blue Devils should be able to right the ship before their Jan. 25 visit to eighth-ranked Miami.
Clemson will have no such break in its schedule, as it's in the midst of a five-game stretch against ranked opponents. The Hurricanes visit Saturday, predating a trip to Virginia next week and a home tilt against Pittsburgh on Jan. 27.
Heading into this stretch, it appeared these games would be the official nail in Clemson's coffin. Two straight wins against ranked opponents later, and we may be seeing the emergence of a tournament team.
Blossomgame spoke on the Tigers' mentality, per Senkiw: "Right now we're a very confident team."
Brownell also offered his thoughts, per Pete Iacobelli of the Associated Press (via ABC News): "It was another big win for us. Exciting in some ways because we had so many guys make plays at the end of the game to get it done."
The Clemson coach paid Nnoko a compliment as well: "Landry Nnoko's been a big part of our voice. He's a voice of reason and a voice of consistency."
Coach K seemed disappointed in his team's decision-making: "If there's only so much lead in your pencil, you have to be careful how many words you write. But that's the game and you've got to be really smart. It's tough for a young team to be really smart."
Follow Tyler Conway (@jtylerconway) on Twitter