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Duke has tough assignment in NIT

SoVaNow.com / November 20, 2013

Sixth-ranked Duke should have a formidable task trying to lock down the championship in next week’s NIT Season Tip-off tournament, especially with a potential matchup featuring fifth-ranked Arizona looming in New York.

The Blue Devils advanced in tournament play Tuesday, finally repelling a stubborn, unafraid East Carolina outfit, 83-74. The game was closer than the score indicated, and this very athletic team came uncomfortably close to failing to advance in the NIT event.

ECU, now 4-1, features freshman forward Brandan Stith, the eldest son of former University of Virginia and NBA standout Bryant Stith. Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said the younger Stith is going to be “really good”, adding considerable praise towards ECU and its coach, former UNC sparkplug Jeff Lebo.

These Blue Devils, who also defeated UNC-Asheville 91-55 in Monday night action in the tournament, will get better. It’s still a team that’s relatively young, and the Blue Devils feature one of the nation’s most dazzling freshmen, Jabari Parker, who assumed a critical leadership role late to make sure Duke (4-1) got to New York.

But Duke, picked to be the top team in this year’s ACC, has some issues.

Rebounding has been a concern, and ECU, led by seven boards from Stith, outrebounded the Blue Devils, 37-34. ECU collected 24 defensive boards, tying Duke in that category, and the Pirates had a 16-3 edge in second chance points. Duke also has to improve both its defense in the paint - these Blue Devils could certainly enjoy another big man presence to compliment Parker and Hood - and its overall defensive cohesion.

Duke already has one tough loss to Kansas on its ledger, and ECU, which has a quality mid-major club in its own right, turned up the heat on the Blue Devils in the second half.

Parker scored 21, added nine boards, dished out two assists, added six blocks and a steal in 35 minutes. Parker was named ACC co-player of the week and rookie of the week. Hood also continued to play extremely well, connecting for 30 points on eight of ten field goal shooting. Hood came into the game leading the ACC in field goal percentage (.703).

Quinn Cook also had a quality outing for the Blue Devils, adding 14 points and ten assists. ECU, which stormed back from a 17-point deficit to defeat Norfolk State in Monday night NIT action in Durham, finished with four players in double figures, led by 15 from Prince Williams. Stith had six points, three blocks and an assist in 21 minutes. Stith also had a strong outing against Norfolk State.

Duke led by 18 with 3:41 left in the first half, but faltered in the second half, connecting on just 33.3 percent of its shots. Overall, the Blue Devils, who play Vermont on Sunday before heading to semifinal and either championship or consolation round action in New York starting November 27, connected on 47.4 percent of their shots. Duke held ECU to 40.3 percent shooting and forced the Pirates into a negative assist (12) to turnover (15) ratio.

But ECU refused to lay down and walk the plank in Cameron, twice pulling within one point of the Blue Devils in the second half.

The decisive moment in the contest arrived when Parker rejected Stith and then sprinted downcourt, finishing with a powerful dunk for a 69-64 Blue Devil lead with 4:51 left. Parker sent the message to ECU: no upset tonight, you scavengers.

Parker later added two blocks on a single ECU possession - at the 2:08 and 2:05 marks, respectively - and Duke followed with two Hood free throws for a 77-70 lead with 1:40 remaining.

“Well, that was a pretty good game. It was a great game. First of all, East Carolina was terrific. We were good; we were not bad. In fact, we were terrific for the first 16 minutes, up 41-23. When someone is terrific, it doesn’t mean they are just terrific in how they play; they are terrific in their resolve. So they came in undefeated and they came back for two of their wins from large deficits. We kept reminding our guys that this team is not going to go away,” Krzyzewski said.

“We could not hit a shot. We were getting close and then all of the sudden they stay in there and they’re playing real well and there is an incredible amount of game pressure. You can cut it with a knife, and I’m proud of my guys because we responded and they never stopped playing well,” he said.

“We don’t come into a game knowing or thinking it’s going to be a blowout. Those guys were good, very good. We started off well and then kind of let off the gas pedal a little bit and let up. And those guys, they hit shots and played good defense. They have some finishers on their team. When you give a good team like that confidence, it’s going to be a good game. We let up, but Coach got on us at halftime. The zone [defense] helped them out in the beginning of the second half. They’re a good team,” Cook said.

Hood praised Parker for his defense, especially the back-to-back block action.

“That was key. They were getting to the basket, and it wasn’t like we were just letting them. Those were quick guards that can handle the ball. In the beginning of the second half, they were getting to the basket and [seeing] clear lanes. And he stepped over. ” said Hood.

Parker, like the rest of his Duke teammates, got a major test from ECU.

“They kind of slowed the game down. Our game is fast break, get out quick, secondary options. We chose to keep attacking the rim even though they went 2-3 [zone defense]. They kind of stopped us from doing what we usually do and it ended up working,” said Parker.

Parker helped Duke avoid a messy upset, with his two blocks at a decisive moment.

“[I was thinking about] just helping my team as much as possible. Their guard play was penetrating, they got the rim and I was just doing what I had to do to help alter shots. Luckily, I anticipated the ball on time,” said Parker.

NIT NOTEBOOK: Duke sailed by UNC Asheville Monday, as Parker had his second straight double-double with 21 points and 10 boards. Hood finished with 18 after another excellent shooting night and the Blue Devils got 18 points from the former SEC transfer.

Duke shot better than 50 percent (.574) for the fourth straight game and also had its best defensive night, limiting UNC Asheville to 33.3 percent accuracy.

Duke also took an extended look at the overall lineup, in an effort to find the best support system for Parker & Co.

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