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5 observations from Duke men's basketball's first half against ...

After a defensive first half in Greensboro, N.C., the Blue Devils are in front by a comfortable margin.

GREENSBORO, N.C.—With the ACC tournament title on the line in Saturday’s final, No. 4-seed Duke took an early lead against No. 2-seed Virginia. That lead remains intact halfway through, with the Blue Devils on top 24-17 inside Greensboro Coliseum.

Lots at stake

Of course, both Duke and Virginia are playing for ACC championship honors and neither is at risk of losing a spot in the NCAA tournament field. But the Blue Devils are playing with an eight-game win streak on the line and a chance at the revenge that Duke players have been yearning for since the controversial ending to their Feb. 11 loss in Charlottesville, Va. 

Duke is going for its first title since 2019 while Virginia is shooting for its first since 2018 and Cavaliers’ head coach Tony Bennett is aiming to become the eighth coach to win the tournament three times. Duke’s Jon Scheyer, on the other hand, could become the third to win the title in his first year and also could be the first to win as a player and then as head coach. 

With one half of basketball in the books and Duke leading by seven, both teams are nonetheless preparing for a tight stretch run as they aim to reach these impressive milestones.

Long possessions

As is commonly expected from any game featuring Bennett on the sidelines, defense and tempo were clearly an emphasis for both teams — several possessions in the early going headed to the waning seconds of the shot clock as both teams probed their opponents in the half court for opportunities to score.

Duke broke the Virginia defense first as it went on a 6-0 run to open the game with the help of a fast-break bucket and crafty handles from Jeremy Roach inside. The low-scoring affair was further supplemented by the fact Duke and Virginia own the ACC’s top two scoring defenses and most efficient defenses, per KenPom, and they certainly came out to play, nearly forcing a shot-clock violation or bad shot on multiple occasions. 

The result? A season-low 17 points scored by a Duke opponent at the half.

Taking care of the rock

Turnovers put some pressure on the Blue Devils early in Friday’s semifinal against Miami, as several bad passes led to the Hurricanes controlling the game late in the first half. On Saturday, however, the Blue Devils were able to take care of the ball a bit better, with only six turnovers by the break. They also scored seven points off Virginia giveaways and looked to move the ball around more methodically against the pack-line defense.

It remains to be seen if one costly play can dramatically swing the still-tight ballgame, but for now, the Blue Devils seem to be minimizing the effects of Virginia’s ball pressure, which forced a season-high 22 turnovers the last time the two teams faced off.

Where’s Clark?

Virginia’s graduate guard Kihei Clark has long been a reliable asset on both ends for the Cavaliers, but he quickly faded from the picture Saturday night. In 15 minutes, the Woodland Hills, Calif., native missed all five of his attempts from the field including three misses from deep, and his team still missed him in his absence. His second stint on the bench was during a five-and-a-half-minute scoring drought for Virginia. In his place, sophomore guard Taine Murray and Isaac McKneely got some extended time on the floor but were not able to dig into the Blue Devil lead.

Player of the half: Kyle Filipowski

The 7-foot freshman has put himself in the running for the tournament’s premier player honors with his first two outings, but his third — with 11 points and five rebounds — may be just what Duke needs to put itself over the top and claim the title when it is all said and done. A 3-pointer with 12:45 on the clock was good to help re-establish some separation, and his presence on the boards was crucial as ever against a physical team where every possession matters. His second-chance layup to put Duke up 22-11 got the crowd on their feet and briefly had the Blue Devils in near total control toward the end of the half.

Earlier on, a personal foul going for a rebound over Virginia’s Francisco Caffaro led to a quick exchange of some words and a rest on the bench, but his stay was not long. He returned as the Blue Devils opted for a pairing of Filipowski and Ryan Young inside for the middle stretch of the half.

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Micah Hurewitz | Sports Managing Editor

Micah Hurewitz is a Trinity junior and a sports managing editor of The Chronicle's 118th volume.

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