Improved defense, NC State help Duke snap skid

NC State’s Jericole Hellems is surrounded by Duke defenders Mark Williams and Jaemyn Brakefield during the Blue Devils’ win at PNC Arena on Saturday (Scott Sharpe/ACC photo pool)

RALEIGH — After watching his team lose three straight, giving up 90 or more points in each of the last two, Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski spent the days leading up to Saturday’s game at NC State working on defense.

It turned out to be time well spent.

The Blue Devils matched their season best for fewest points allowed and forced 18 turnovers, many leading to easy baskets on the opposite end, en route to a badly needed 69-53 victory at PNC Arena.

“We practiced really well the last couple of days,” said sophomore forward Matthew Hurt, who hit six of his seven 3-point attempts while scoring a game-high 24 points.

“Our defense hasn’t been good the last two games. we just tried to switch up the ball screen coverages and it worked out tonight. That’s why coach is so good at this. He makes adjustments and we’re all proud.”

As much as Krzyzewski’s coaching and Hurt’s shooting combined to get Duke back to .500 at 8-8 (6-6 ACC), State also had a hand in helping the Blue Devils end their uncharacteristic three-game skid.

Coach Kevin Keatts’ team has had a knack for being the salve that cures the ills of its ACC basketball opponents. And just as it was earlier this season against a shorthanded Miami team, the Wolfpack (8-9, 4-8) proved to be just what the doctor ordered for the struggling Blue Devils.

Seven of State’s turnovers came during a decisive 7 1/2-minute stretch in which Duke turn a slim 11-10 lead into 20-point bulge by outscoring the Wolfpack 22-3.

It was a spurt from which State never recovered. It also provided Keatts with an unpleasant flashback. Just last Tuesday, the self-destructive Wolfpack committed 20 turnovers in an 11-point loss to Syracuse.

“It’s going to be hard to win any ACC game if our ball security is not very good and to be honest with you, we stink right now in that area,” a visibly frustrated Keatts said. “We don’t put ourselves in a great situation to win no matter how hard we play, no matter who has a hot hand.

“When you look at the first half, we gave it away 13 times and dug ourselves in such a big hole, and then you’re climbing back out of that hole the entire game.”

It was a climb that never had a chance at succeeding.

Playing with the urgency of a team fighting for its postseason life, which it is, Duke dominated on both ends of the court.

Defensively, the Blue Devils made it difficult for State to score even when it didn’t turn the ball over. Freshman big man Mark Williams spearheaded the improved effort by blocking five shots while the improved ball screen switches Hurt referenced helped hold the Wolfpack to a 2 of 10 shooting performance from 3-point range.

By contrast, Duke made 9 of its 18 attempts from long range — a number of those coming on open looks created by Williams’ passing out of the low post to Hurt, Jeremy Roach and Jordan Goldwire. Williams also did some damage of his own, contributing 13 points on 5 of 9 shooting.

“It was fun playing with Matt. We’ve been working in practice every day on that high-low, making that pass, moving the ball, communicating – all those things,” Williams said. “We all played well together, we moved the ball, we were unselfish. I think that translated today.”

That team effort was a clear step in the right director for Krzyzewski, who insists he’s more concerned with game-to-game improvement than he is with his team’s longshot quest to play its way into the NCAA tournament.

“It’s really important because these kids have worked hard every day,” Krzyzewski said of the win. “They could’ve come in here down. You lose three in a row, you’re under .500, you lose some close games, you’re playing at Duke and all those things – they’ve not done that.

“They’ve really worked hard and have been enthusiastic, upbeat and we just have to keep doing that and don’t pay attention to anyone else. Just keep doing that and something good will happen. Something momentarily, because we won one game, happened today. You’ve just got to stay with it – that’s what our program has done – and see what happens if you do that.”

While the Blue Devils have finally gotten some positive mojo going their way, State’s fortunes are trending in the opposite direction.

But even though the Wolfpack has lost four of its five games since senior leader Devon Daniels was lost for the year with a knee injury, Keatts said his team’s troubles are more the result of of lack of execution rather than a lack of motivation.

Freshman Shakeel Moore led State with 13 points while D.J. Funderburk and Jericole Hellems finished with 11 points apiece.

“Our guys are fighting,” Keatts said. “Our guys are bothered by the fact that we don’t have great security. I do think that’s something that we can fix. But its something we’ve got to fix in a hurry because it’s not a great formula to win ACC games.”