It turns out those Dennis Smith rumors are true.
He is pretty good.
Duke’s topsy-turvy season took a decided turn towards the turvy Monday night, falling 84-82 to North Carolina State, Duke’s first loss at home this season.
Smith, the much-hyped freshman guard, played a major role in the upset, 32 points, six assists (all in the second half) and a game-clinching steal.
Duke led for 31 minutes and had the Wolfpack on the ropes on more than one occasion.
But every attempt at a knockout punch turned into a missed shot, a turnover or a bad defensive sequence.
“We just didn’t finish,” Matt Jones acknowledged. “We didn’t make the plays we needed to make to put them away and they made every play they needed to make.”
A lot of those finishes came on the defensive side of the ball, where Duke took a step back from Saturday night’s second-half dominance, allowing the visitors to shoot 55 percent in the second half, while committing only 10 turnovers for the game.
Jones fell on his captain’s sword.
“It started with me. I didn’t do a good job of playing defense and that carried over to everyone else. I take full responsibility for that. He [Smith] was tough. He made big plays. You’ve got to take your hat off to him.”
Duke was on fire early, Frank Jackson, Luke Kennard, Jayson Tatum, Grayson Allen and Jones all knocking down 3-pointers, while Harry Giles showed flashes of brilliance inside.
Duke’s lead peaked at a dozen, 44-32, with 37 seconds left in the half.
Duke would love to have those 37 seconds back. First, Smith hit a you-had-to-see-it-to-believe it 3-pointer at the rim to cut the lead to nine.
But the shot clock was off and Duke was holding for the final shot. Jones was called for a travel with six seconds left and Smith hit a 25-footer as time expired.
Suddenly that 12-point lead was halved and the Pack had Big Mo on their side.
Again, Duke seemed to regain control. The Blue Devils led 48-40 early in the second half but Jackson missed an open 3-pointer. Duke got a stop and Tatum missed another open 3-pointer.
It was a harbinger of things to come. Duke would make only two of 14 from beyond the arc in the second half.
State accepted the lifeline and took a 49-48 lead on a Maverick Rowan 3-pointer.
The teams traded baskets for a while before Tatum and Kennard led a 12-3 run to put Duke up 68-59, with less than seven minutes left.
Duke doesn’t lose nine-point leads with seven minutes left at home.
But they did tonight.
It was a little bit push, a little bit pull. Duke couldn’t put the ball in the basket. Tatum kept making great plays to get to the rim but couldn’t make the shots. Allen attempted four 3-pointers in the second half and missed them all.
“I had some shots that should have gone in,” Tatum acknowledged. “Sometimes they just don’t go in.”
“We got comfortable,” Kennard said.
Smith gave State a 72-70 lead with a 3-pointer, Kennard answered for Duke and then the well went dry for the home team, 3 missed 3-pointers in a span of 64 seconds.
At the other end, Smith twice found Malik Abu for dunks, sandwiched around 3-pointers by Smith, Rowan and Smith again, the last one making it 79-73, with 1:27 left.
“When we’re not hitting shots, we need to get stops,” Kennard said. “Credit to them for executing on the offensive end. But we just couldn’t get stops.”
Duke actually had a chance in the final seconds. After Grayson Allen cut the lead to four with a pair of foul shots, Duke double-teamed Terry Henderson and forced a turnover and foul.
Kennard hit two from the line. State built the lead back to 83-77 from the line but Jackson scored, Smith missed two foul shots—he was 8-15 from the line—and Tatum got an old-fashioned 3-point play.
Suddenly, Rowan was at the line with the score 83-82. He made the first but missed the second with about five seconds left.
Tatum rebounded and pushed the ball up court, right into Smith’s waiting arms.
“There had to be somebody open,” Tatum said of the final play. “But Dennis came and took it.”
Duke was out of timeouts and Jeff Capel said the only option was “grab it and go.”
Capel said he liked Duke’s shots in the second half. “We had some opportunities but couldn’t capitalize on them. We had some good looks. We had wide-open 3s, some drives to the baskets, a few were rushed but not many.”
The loss drops Duke to 3-4 in the ACC, 15-5 overall with a road trip coming up. Gut-check time.
Chase Jeter sat out the game with a herniated disk in his back. No word on his return.
Kennard led Duke with 20 points. Tatum (16), Allen (13) and Jones (11) joined him in double figures for Duke.
Tatum grabbed nine rebounds.
Harry Giles had eight points and six rebounds in the first half but added only a single rebound after intermission, while missing a crucial one-and-one.
Abu and Rowan supported Smith with 19 and 14 points respectively.
State’s last win at Duke came in 1995, when Mike Krzyzewski was also sidelined following back surgery.