Eight minutes into the first half of Saturday's matchup between Duke and Notre Dame, national player of the year candidate Jahlil Okafor picked up a pair of quick fouls on back-to-back possessions and took a seat on the bench.
A turning point? A chance for the Irish to make a run? Uh, not quite.
It really didn't matter who fourth-ranked Duke had on the floor during the first half of its 90-60 beatdown of 10th-ranked Notre Dame. Anyone in a white jersey with blue trim seemed incapable of missing throughout a 14-minute stretch in which the Blue Devils unleashed a devastating 43-7 run en route to an insurmountable 50-24 halftime lead.
Duke sank 17 of the 21 shots it attempted during the first half despite Okafor logging only eight minutes and scoring only four of his game-high 20 points. The Blue Devils scored on all but four of their first-half possessions in part because they got unbelievably hot from the perimeter and in part because Notre Dame was awful attempting to contest shots, stop dribble penetration or protect the rim.
Seven of the eight threes Duke attempted in the first half went in, three by reserve guard Matt Jones alone. Backup center Marshall Plumlee even managed to score on a dunk that he came up short on only to have it bounce off the front rim and through the hoop, leaving him chuckling to himself as he jogged back on defense.
Throttling the 10th-ranked team in the country in such decisive fashion is a reminder why Duke was once considered the clear-cut top challenger to unbeaten Kentucky. A three-loss January may have exposed that the Blue Devils have some defensive issues, but they're still as good as anyone in the nation when they're on top of their game, as evidenced by Saturday's outcome and previous road wins against top 10 Wisconsin, Louisville and Virginia.
Duke also had ample motivation Saturday facing a Notre Dame team that won the first meeting between the two teams less than two weeks ago in South Bend. In that game, All-American candidate Jerian Grant rallied the Irish from an 11-point second-half deficit with his late-game heroics, while Okafor missed four late free throws and spent the final 90 seconds of the game on the bench.
That storyline turned around in a big way on Saturday as Okafor sank 9 of 11 shots and also grabbed 10 rebounds against Notre Dame's undersized frontline, while Grant was a non-factor. The Blue Devils hounded him the entire game and forced someone else to beat them as he finished with seven points and four assists on 3-for-10 shooting.
Some will probably argue that this shows the chasm separating offense-oriented Notre Dame from true title contenders, and maybe that's the case. The Irish (21-4, 9-3) have a pair of great wins over Duke and North Carolina, but their other quality wins — Michigan State, Miami and Purdue — aren't even against teams that are locks to go to the NCAA tournament.
Regardless of what Notre Dame turns out to be, however, take nothing away from Duke. For one half against a fellow ACC contender, the Blue Devils offered a reminder that their best is as good as almost anyone's.
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