RALEIGH, N.C. -- No. 2 Duke dropped to 14-1 on the season, leaving just two undefeated teams left in the country (No. 1 Kentucky and No. 3 Virginia). But it wasn't an overtime thriller or a fluke -- the Blue Devils were dominated by NC State (12-5, 2-1 ACC) in a game that wasn't even as close as the final score of 87-75. It was a win the Wolfpack desperately needed in the midst of their toughest stretch of the season, and their fans rushed the course in jubilation to celebrate their biggest home win in the last two years (which, also, was against Duke). And Duke was bound to lose at some point. So what does it all mean?
Three-Point Take 1. Jahlil Okafor had a big game, but NC State executed its defense against him -- and Duke -- flawlessly.
When it comes to Duke and its offense, the presence of dominant freshman center Jahlil Okafor has always meant that it's a bit of a pick-your-poison as an opposing defense. Let Okafor get his in the post while not leaving Duke's three-point shooters, or double-team him, don't give him easy looks and take your chances with the shooters, who Okafor -- an excellent passer -- has found often this season?
NC State decided it would just do both.
"The key objective was to really make his passing angles tough. The bigs had to double with high hands. When he dribbled away, then we would match back up. So it would be really a 1-on-1, but he's at the three-point line and we felt like our bigs could do a good job on him that far out," NC State's Trevor Lacey said.
"But when he got it on the block where he's really effective, we just had to make his passing angles difficult and make sure when he skipped it, it was enough time for us to recover and contest a 3. They made some, they missed some but that's just how we had to play it. When he's playing his best and getting 20 and 20, they're a hard team to beat. We just tried to slow him down and make those other guys make contested shots."
Okafor ended up with 23 points on 8-of-11 shooting -- mostly because he's a great player -- but the Wolfpack gave him absolutely nothing easy. And he also didn't finish with an assist.
NC State used both Kyle Washington and BeeJay Anya on him primarily. Anya knew Okafor's game pretty well, have grown up playing against him and playing with him for a time on Team USA.
"I know his game. I've played against him so many times. He knows my game. We're really good friends," Anya said. "I know one thing he likes to do is really bury you deep. If he gets defenders who aren't his size, he does a great job with that. Even people who are his size, he wears them down.
"I just tried to go out there as much as possible and battle with him and wear him down as he wore me down. We got to a point in the game where he tapped me on my leg and I tapped him back on the leg, just like, you know...respect. We weren't going to back down, neither one of us were, because we're so competitive."
NC State worked to deny Okafor, and when he got it, double team him. They threw different looks at him defensively, and different bodies. But they wanted to try to avoid letting him get post position too deep, and just limit his touches, period. Close out on shooters and make them drive.
Not much margin for error with a strategy like that -- one breakdown can ruin an entire possession -- but that was what NC State expected.
"That's all the good teams. Duke is a championship team," Lacey said. "We just have to -- not just him, but just against anybody, our defensive intensity had to stay at that same level."
2. NC State came up big -- pun absolutely intended.
Trevor Lacey led the Wolfpack with 21 points, and both he and fellow guard Ralston Turner hit a number of contested jumpers because they're just that good. But the play of NC State's perimeter has never really been the question.
The question all season long for NC State has revolved around its big men. Or mainly, whether their lack of consistency would be a long-term problem.
In wins, the bigs have showed up just enough. The last five games before Duke were a perfect indictor: two wins, the four primary big men (BeeJay Anya, Abdul-Malik Abu, Lennard Freeman and Kyle Washington) combined for 43 points on 18-of-35 shooting to go with 42 rebounds, three assists, six steals, 14 blocks, 18 fouls and seven turnovers.
But in three losses, they combined for 57 points on 17-of-38 shooting to go with 39 rebounds, three assists, two steals, six blocks, 29 fouls and 15 turnovers.
In wins, they're a positive factor. In losses, they've been a negative one or non-factors altogether.
But against Duke, they stepped it up several more notches, and all of them contributed: the foursome combined for 37 points on 16-of-28 shooting, adding 20 rebounds, seven assists, eight blocks, 11 fouls and just three turnovers. They had six assists BETWEEN THEM in the five games combined leading up to the Duke game.
Anya single handedly saved the day in the second half for the Wolfpack, scoring 10 of his 14 points in that half, including a thunderous putback dunk after Duke had cut a 19-point deficit down to eight with 2:25 to go.
He said that head coach Mark Gottfried challenged the big men this week in practice. "He was telling us he knows what we're capable of doing and he wants us to go out there and prove it. A lot of people were talking about our post isn't strong and everything, but he has confidence in us and he wants us to go out there and prove it to everybody and just do what we know that we can do," Anya said.
Washington was the first-half catalyst, scoring seven of his nine in that half (along with three assists, by far his most this season). Abu finished with eight points and eight rebounds, while Freeman had four and four in 16 minutes.
If this version of each of NC State's big men shows up the rest of the year, AND the perimeter guys continue to play that well, watch out.
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