Duke pulls out nailbiter against Clemson, 79-72, in ACC Tournament opener

Kennard, Jackson and Tatum score 20 points apiece to advance in Brooklyn

Brad Penner—USA Today Sports
Duke Blue Devils guard Frank Jackson (15) drives to the basket against Clemson Tigers forward Elijah Thomas (14) and Clemson Tigers guard Gabe DeVoe (10) during the second half of an ACC Conference Tournament game at Barclays Center.

BROOKLYN, N.Y. — Down by three points with 2:04 remaining in the game, Clemson’s Elijah Thomas went up for an open layup that banged off the rim. Duke took the ball down to the other end, drawing Thomas’ fifth foul as Frank Jackson hit both free throws to take a five-point lead.In a season where Clemson has been so close in so many games, the four-point swing was a critical one in a 79-72 win for the Blue Devils. After losing three of its final four games down the stretch and missing out on the No. 4 seed, the Devils were able to build confidence in Brooklyn on Wednesday.”As crazy as it sounds, I think we’re still evolving because of all the injuries and interruptions that we’ve had,” Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “But we’re getting better. Today, we found a new thing with Jayson [Tatum], how to use him, and how Frank [Jackson] has played — he’s had a terrific year, but the last four or five games have been great.”Maybe we’ll develop more of an identity here.”Luke Kennard, Frank Jackson and Jayson Tatum each scored 20 points apiece while Amile Jefferson finished with a double-double (11 points, 10 rebounds). It was enough to overcome another disappointing performance for Grayson Allen, who went 0-for-4 and played just 12 minutes after a technical foul in the first half.On the other end, Jaron Blossomgame produced a team-high 19 points for Clemson while Shelton Mitchell contributed 17 for the Tigers. Sidy Djitte finished what could amount to his final ACC contest with a double-double at 10 points and 10 rebounds.Clemson fought hard in the first half, getting 10 points and six rebounds from Blossomgame before heading into the locker room. The Tigers kept pace with the Blue Devils by forcing fouls and shooting 16-of-18 from the charity stripe in the first 20 minutes for nearly half of their points in a 33-33 first half.After scoring just three points in the first half, Kennard came out guns blazing in the second. The All-ACC First Team selection tallied 17 of his 20 points in the final 20 minutes to help the Devils pull away.Duke went on an 11-2 and 9-2 run to hold a 13-point edge with 7:59 remaining in the convincing win. Kennard’s solid second half combined with huge performances from the freshman duo of Jackson and Tatum propelled the Devils to a win in the ACC Tournament opener for the fourth straight year.”He gives us a lot of freedom to shoot the ball,” Kennard said of Krzyzewski. “He always tells us to hunt our shot. That’s what we do as a group, and it’s really, really good.”With the win, Duke advances to the quarterfinals with a matchup against No. 4 Louisville. The two teams matched up only once in the regular season, a 78-69 win for the Cardinals at the Yum Center.Duke may have dropped the game in Louisville, but it was without Krzyzewski due to back surgery. In what would amount to a revenge game for Coach K, the Blue Devils are more than prepared for the challenge.”This is a process,” Kennard said. “To play back-to-back days, it can be tough. But for us, as a group, we take it very seriously. … This is a big win for us, but we have to move on to the next one. The next one is Louisville.”We have to stay locked in. We have to stay together. And we have to stay tough.”