Just four days ago, the No. 24 Tigers trapped and harassed N.C. State into 23 turnovers and walked away with a 16-point victory.
Saturday night, it was the No. 5 Blue Devils that applied the defensive pressure, which disrupted Clemson mightily. All told, the Tigers committed 21 turnovers, which led to 37 Duke points as it cruised to the 93-80 victory at Cameron Indoor Stadium.
“It just seemed like we got rattled to start off with,” said Clemson senior forward James Mays, who led the team with five turnovers. “We knew what kind of defense they were going to use. When they first started off trapping us, I guess it surprised us.”
Also not helping matters were all the missed free throws by the Tigers and all the made ones by Duke. Clemson was 10-of-23 (43.5 percent) from the line, while the Blue Devils were 24-of-32 (75.0 percent).
“It’s been a problem for a couple or three years,” Purnell said. “We haven’t shot them well. Last year up here I think we were 11-for-12. Obviously that would’ve been helpful tonight. I think the combination of (turnovers and free throws) really kept us from getting any kind of working margin and eventually got us out of the ballgame.”
It was evident from the get-go that the Tigers were going to have trouble handing the extended pressure defense by Duke, which challenges every single pass.
In a span of six minutes, Clemson (14-4, 2-2 ACC) went from leading by four to trailing by 12, during which time it had seven turnovers on 11 possessions.
Freshman point guard Demontez Stitt, as well as senior guard Cliff Hammonds, had a particularly hard time handling the trapping defense.
Every time a Clemson player went to set a screen to help free up a guard, the Duke defender guarding the post player would join the other Blue Devils defender and trap the Clemson guard.
It worked time and time again as the Tigers threw a bad and under duress pass, which was ultimately taken by a Duke player, who raced to the other end for an uncontested layup.
The Blue Devils (15-1, 3-0 ACC) wound up with 20 baskets from within two feet of the rim, most of which came off their 13 steals.
Duke guard DeMarcus Nelson was the beneficiary of many of those as he led all scorers with 24 points. Kyle Singler added 17 and Gerald Henderson 16.
“Duke lives off turnovers that you can’t defend,” Purnell said. “I thought our inability to take care of the basketball in both halves kept us from really getting any kind of lead, getting any kind of working margin.”
But much to Clemson’s credit, the players continued to battle. The Tigers managed to trim Duke's lead to 43-38 at halftime.
The Tigers started the second half the same way they ended the first, which was taking care of the basketball and making shots. And with 13:40 left to play, Clemson even grabbed the lead at 55-54.
When the Tigers did get a shot off, it went in more times than not. Clemson made 53.2 percent of its shots. As a result, K.C. Rivers led the way with 16 points on 7-of-9 shooting. Trevor Booker and Stitt each added 15.
“We scored enough points to win,” Purnell said.
But then it happened once again as the turnovers came in droves and before Purnell could blink, the Tigers found themselves in a deep hole due to turnovers as Duke raced on a 23-7 run to take an 81-65 lead with 5:43 remaining.
Clemson never recovered.
Stitt, who had four turnovers, said all the mistakes were more of their own doing rather than what Duke forced.
“Don’t get me wrong, they had good pressure on the ball,” he said. “But we didn’t communicate and we didn’t have players where they were supposed to be and that’s what happens when you don’t run the offense.”
And so there it was – another game where Clemson was done in by free throws and surprisingly, its turnovers.
“I told our guys I didn’t think we played particularly well,” Purnell said. “I thought as the game wore on we didn’t stay locked in on what we were supposed to do, particularly taking care of the basketball. It was equal opportunity – our point guard, our wings, our four and five guys all turned it over so they could shoot layups.
“As a team we didn’t take care of the basketball and I would say that that led to our demise.”