While Tech had played near its peak for much of the game against Virginia, only to be outdone in the closing minutes by the Cavaliers’ defensive might and shotmaking by forwards Jay Huff and Sam Hauser, the Jackets sabotaged themselves with a poor first half against the Blue Devils.
The Jackets were off offensively, often looking for their own shots and missing when they did. Duke went into the half up 33-25 after finishing on a 10-0 run. It was the Jackets’ lowest-scoring half of the season. Tech shot 10-for-31 from the field (32.3%), including 3-for-13 from 3-point range (23.1%). In the first two games out of their 17-day break, the Jackets had shot 51.4% from the field and 59.5% from 3-point range.
“I think we played a terrible half,” said guard Jose Alvarado, who delivered yet another mesmerizing performance with a game-high 26 points, five assists, four rebounds and three steals. “They got up and they got their confidence going.”
Tech fell behind as many as 11 in the second half. The Jackets were able to rally, but gone was any opportunity to build any margin to withstand the play of Duke freshman forward Jalen Johnson, a potential lottery pick who scored 18 points on 7-for-11 shooting. Pastner called it the team’s worst first half since the season-opening losses to Georgia State and Mercer, and that was probably a generous assessment.
“I don’t know why we played like that,” Pastner said of the team’s first half. “I don’t have an explanation. We had bad shots, bad shot selection. I thought we played selfish in the first half, I thought our cutting was very slow.”
Still, Tech had its chances at the end but mistakes helped ensure the Jackets’ demise. Duke took a 69-68 lead with 1:19 left on a Johnson free throw. On the next possession, Alvarado lost the ball on the dribble.
“I don’t know,” Alvarado said, asked if he thought he’d been fouled. “I turned the ball over. That’s all I can say. I shouldn’t have turned the ball over and it was a big-time turnover for me.”
After Duke’s Jonathan Goldwire (a Norcross High grad) made two free throws with 46.3 seconds left, Jordan Usher missed from 3-point range with about 32 seconds left. Tech was still in position where it could have gone for a higher-percentage two-point shot and fouled again. Pastner called it ill-advised.
“There’s no need for that shot,” Pastner said. “He knew better.”
Khalid Moore put Matthew Hurt on the line with 19.6 seconds left and Tech down 71-68. After making the first, Hurt missed the second, but Usher failed to box out, enabling Goldwire to get the rebound and get fouled again, and his two made free throws with 14.7 seconds left put the Blue Devils up by a virtually unassailable 74-68 margin.
Before that, there were other shots of questionable wisdom, leaving out a first half that was full of them. Guard Michael Devoe had a tough night for the second game in a row, putting up challenging shots and going 2-for-9 for four points. He had three points against Virginia on 1-for-8 shooting. Pastner elected to have Moore on the floor for the final minutes rather than Devoe, who came into the game averaging 13.9 points per game.
“Mike’s a great player,” Pastner said. “In order for us to be successful, we’re going to need Mike to get going, there’s no question.”
Duke also enjoyed a 22-5 advantage in free throws, making 18. The Blue Devils had been lagging in that category while the Jackets had taken only a total of 14 free throws in the previous two games.
Asked about the discrepancy, Pastner responded, “I’ll move on to the next question because I don’t want to get myself in trouble.”
Squandered were standout performances from Alvarado and forward Moses Wright, who had 12 points (although he was 6-for-17 from the field), 14 rebounds, six assists and three blocks. Both were on the floor for the full 40 minutes. Alvarado kept the Jackets in the game virtually by himself at stretches. Early in the second half, he scored seven of the Jackets’ first nine points to trim an 11-point Duke lead back down to four. On two different occasions, he pickpocketed Johnson for steals and scored at the other end.
“Alvarado is as good of a guard at a high level,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said.
Ever the competitor and leader, Alvarado blamed himself for the loss.
“Definitely my fault,” he said. “Three turnovers as a point guard is terrible.”
Pastner took responsibility as well.
“We’re good enough to (win), but we’ve got to learn that, when you’re playing in the upper echelon in this league, or any team, you can’t give away possessions,” he said.
Regardless, the unavoidable reality is that the Jackets, however competitive they might be, are seeing their NCAA tournament hopes starting to flicker, and this has been the team that Pastner touted to be the one to make it back to the tournament. Pastner took hope in the fact that the Jackets still have games remaining to still prove themselves and have particularly shown in the past two games that they can compete with the league’s best. But he also recognized that there’s no guarantee that those games will be played.
“We just should have won both games, and we didn’t get it done,” Pastner said.