The No. 5 team in the country visited McCamish Pavilion Tuesday night. What Georgia Tech ultimately was hosting to, though, was a two-hour tutorial in defensive intensity administered with painstaking detail by the Duke Blue Devils.
Duke wrung out the Yellow Jackets, pressing, trapping and squeezing them into a 68-51 late-night win for the visitors.
“Most of life’s lessons, you have to live ’em and then talk about ’em or watch ’em,” coach Brian Gregory said. “We lived one (Tuesday). That team went after us aggressively on the defensive end. We didn’t respond as well as you need to.”
Staggered from the start by the Blue Devils’ pressure, Tech (13-13 overall, 4-9 ACC) played tentatively and was forced into turnovers or challenged shots. On the Jackets’ first possession, a pass into the post went out of bounds. They lost the ball on their third when they couldn’t inbound the ball in time. Sped up by pressure, they rushed and missed a shot on the fourth. On the sixth, they were forced to take a wild 3-pointer at the end of the shot clock.
Duke (21-5, 10-3) scored on the next possession to go up 12-3, the beginning of a night in which the Blue Devils played on a higher plane for most of the 40 minutes. Duke extended pressure well past the 3-point arc, jamming up handoffs and making passes along the perimeter a risky proposition.
“I thought defensively, we were outstanding (Tuesday),” said Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, a man familiar with excellent defensive play.
After Tech leveled off and rallied to 18-12 when the Jackets’ own defensive pressure created an alley-oop dunk in transition for center Daniel Miller, the Blue Devils took off again, blitzing the Jackets with a combination of star forward Jabari Parker, their quick-hitting transition game and more pressure on Tech’s guards. Guard Corey Heyward had turned the ball over five times in the previous 94 minutes going into Tuesday’s game. Getting jumped like a tourist in the wrong part of town, Heyward gave up the ball four times in his first seven minutes, leading to seven points.
“Obviously, they went after him,” Gregory said. “And he’s got to learn from it.”
After the 11-2 run, Tech was down 29-14 with 7:29 to go. For the remaining 27:29, the Jackets never got closer than 12 points. Duke went into halftime up 43-27, outscoring Tech 10-2 in points off turnovers, 14-2 in fast-break points and shooting 7-for-11 from 3-point range.
“Our guys played a heck of a first half,” Krzyzewski said. “We played with amazing energy and focus.”
Tech, with guard Trae Golden back on the court after missing two of the past three games with a groin injury and getting help from forward Robert Carter in his return from a torn meniscus, stabilized defensively in the second half. The Jackets limited the Blue Devils to 29.2 percent shooting from the field. Duke’s 68-point total is actually its fourth lowest this season, and its 25-point second half was its second-lowest scoring half of the season.
But it was rendered fairly inconsequential by the Jackets’ inability to generate their offense. Miller, averaging 15.7 points in the previous six games, scored two points on four shots because he either had to set screens to free Tech’s ballhandlers from Duke defenders or because the pressure was so great they couldn’t get the ball to him in the post.
“They kind of stopped us the whole game,” Carter said. “When you can’t get into your offense, it’s hard to play basketball.”
Parker led Duke with a game-high 16 points to go with 14 rebounds. Forward Rodney Hood dropped four 3-pointers on the Jackets and scored 14. For Tech, Carter finished with a team-high 13 points with eight rebounds as his form continues to improve following a 10-game absence.
The Jackets will play Clemson at McCamish Saturday. Golden figures to be healthier and Carter sharper. Barring a rematch with Duke in the ACC tournament, Tech may not see pressure again like it did Tuesday. But the Jackets would do well to be better prepared for it if they do.