DURHAM, N.C. – Mike Krzyzewski could sense his Duke players were battling fatigue by halftime in the second-ranked Blue Devils' return from a COVID-19 outbreak. So he kept the message simple.
“I said, ‘I know you guys are tired," he said. “’But you cannot be tired on the defensive end.”
The approach worked, with the Blue Devils holding Georgia Tech to 33% shooting while grinding out a 69-57 win on Tuesday night in their first game in nearly two weeks.
Freshman Paolo Banchero had 17 points and 11 rebounds to lead the Blue Devils (12-1, 2-0 Atlantic Coast Conference), who won despite shooting season-low 37.3%. But Duke held the Yellow Jackets (6-7, 0-3) to 33% while dominating the glass (48-35) to get extra looks behind Banchero and Mark Williams (10 points, 14 rebounds).
It was never easy. Duke led by 15 midway through the second half but struggled to put this one away, with the Yellow Jackets twice cutting the deficit to six in the final 4 1/2 minutes.
Still, Duke came up with answers — namely a vicious throwdown slam from AJ Griffin, a contested 3 from fellow freshman Trevor Keels and multiple late free throws — to stay in front.
“We all had to get our legs back," Banchero said. "Some of us didn't feel too good coming into the game. But we had to grind it out and get a win.”
ACC-leading scorer Michael Devoe finished on his average with 21 points for Georgia Tech. All but five came in the final 11-plus minutes, including the 3-pointer and driving score that twice brought the Yellow Jackets within six — the last time at 58-52 with 3:18 left.
The Yellow Jackets shot just 8 of 32 by halftime (25%) and finished at 33%.
“Duke's good enough to win the national championship," Georgia Tech coach Josh Pastner said. "I was really proud of our young men, they competed, they battled.”
The Blue Devils hadn't played since beating Virginia Tech in their ACC opener Dec. 22. League games at Clemson and Notre Dame were postponed with Krzyzewski saying cases had gone through “just about our whole team” from players to staffers.
“To be able to be out and get to play again, you don't take it for granted anymore,” said Griffin, who had 12 points off the bench. “It just gave me flashbacks about COVID, like when it first started. I'm just happy it's over now.”
Georgia Tech: The Yellow Jackets entered ranked in the bottom third of the league in both scoring (68.8 points) and shooting percentage (.448). Those troubles continued, with Georgia Tech at one point going 7 1/2 minutes without a basket in a stretch of 13 straight misses. The Yellow Jackets had offset some of those troubles by shooting 37.4% from behind the arc (fourth in the ACC), but they made just 6 of 20 in this one.
Duke: Krzyzewski said his team needs to get back into game shape, but that the Blue Devils also had to be careful to avoid “binge conditioning” with players risking injuries by pushing too hard to make up for lost time. That part could take a while, with challenges showing up in smaller details — like Moore throwing an entry pass for Williams to the wrong shoulder and out of bounds or Banchero bobbling away an easy pass late in the first half for an unforced over-and-back turnover near midcourt.
“I've never gone through anything like this," the retiring Hall of Famer said. “So I'm learning as I'm doing it. ... We're not close to being the team we were before the break. But we can be.”
There was an awkward second-half moment when Devoe pointed to Krzyzewski and said something as the coach called a timeout. Krzyzewski talked back to Devoe and followed him out near halfcourt as teams returned to their benches.
Afterward, Pastner said he didn't know the specifics but would talk to Devoe.
“You can't do that, no matter what the situation is,” he said. “No player should ever talk to an opposing coach. ... I know Michael Devoe has nothing but the highest level of respect for Coach K.”
Pastner said he had hoped to have former Georgia Tech coach Bobby Cremins sit on the bench in a bit of a reunion with Krzyzewski after the two had coached against each other through the 1980s and 1990s. But Cremins was unable to attend due to an ailment. Pastner said he got compliance approval to do it.
Duke made 26 of 40 free throws. Georgia Tech got to the line just 12 times, making nine.
“Every one says it's a farewell tour. We got detoured here.” — Krzyzewski on the COVID-19 postponements in his final season.
Georgia Tech: The Yellow Jackets host Notre Dame on Saturday.
Duke: The Blue Devils host Miami on Saturday.
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