DURHAM — The task of guarding Jahlil Okafor prompted a long, drawn-out series of thoughts for Elon University men’s basketball coach Matt Matheny.
And the answer was still up in the air after the game ended.
All 6 feet, 11 inches and 270 pounds of Okafor patrolled the post and had his way with the Phoenix on Monday, Dec. 15 at Cameron Indoor Stadium, scoring 25 points and grabbing 20 rebounds to lead No. 2 Duke University in a 75-62 victory.
“He’s a guy that we didn’t know whether to double right away, double on the dribble, play him one on one,” Matheny said. “He’s a very difficult matchup. He’s very difficult to game plan for. We did everything we could to crowd him and to be quick to our double. We thought we did well at times, but the toughest thing is how big he is and for us to get rebounds.”
Elon’s tallest available player was 6-foot-8 freshman Jack Anton. Okafor towered over him, as well as guys like junior guard Tanner Samson (6-foot-4) and freshman forward Collin Luther (6-foot-6) who were also caught playing in the post thanks to a first-half injury to senior forward Ryan Winters.
Okafor frequently went over multiple Elon players for rebounds and tap-ins, and at one juncture, grabbed his own rebound twice over two Elon players, made the third attempt and was fouled.
“He’s pretty big, and skilled also,” said Elon sophomore forward Christian Hairston, who was tied for the team lead with five rebounds. Freshman guard Dmitri Thompson also pulled down five boards.
Elon was coming off a narrow defeat at the hands of the University of Missouri on Thursday, Dec. 11. In it, the Phoenix clawed back from a 19-point deficit to come within one during the final minute before losing 75-70.
“I thought Elon played really hard against us and well,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “I think coming off the Missouri game where they probably should have won it at the end, they keep building and they keep getting better and better.”
Duke dunked four times in the first 7:07, two of them from Justise Winslow in transition. He caught an alley-oop from Quinn Cook, and later pickpocketed Elon’s Elijah Bryant and slammed one home. Amile Jefferson drove around an Elon defender to put the Blue Devils up 15-2 at the 12:53 mark.
While Duke led from the onset, the Phoenix had a knack for hanging around. Luther and senior guard Austin Hamilton drained 3-pointers early in the second half to cut what had been a 20-point Duke lead to 11.
Duke’s lead grew as large as 14 in the first half, but a floater and a nice drive from sophomore guard Luke Eddy cut the deficit to 30-21 with 3:50 left before the break.
“The one thing Coach (Matheny) said pregame was ‘They’re going to come out and punch you. It’s all about how you respond,’” Hairston said. “Like Coach said, they came out and punched us. But we’re not going to back down. We fought back until the final buzzer.”
Elon was led by Eddy’s 16 points. Jefferson had 13 points for Duke, while Winslow had 12 and Rasheed Sulaimon had 11.
“We fought hard as a team,” Eddy said. “They were big, that was obvious. We had trouble with that. But we fought. I’m not going to say I’m happy with the outcome, but it’s respectable.”
NOTES: … Okafor is the first Duke player since Elton Brand in 1998 to have at least 20 points and 20 rebounds in a game. … Winters didn’t play in the second half and had a brace on his left knee. Matheny said it was “an ankle thing” and that he either jammed or sprained it. … Elon shot 42.4 percent (25 of 59) from the field, its second-best tally against a Division I opponent this season. … At halftime, two-thirds of Duke’s points had come in the paint. The Blue Devils were just 3 of 16 from beyond the arc. … With 1:37 left, Sulaimon was issued a technical foul on a play where he appeared to shove Eddy in the face. “He wanted to bully me. I don’t get bullied,” Eddy said. … Elon faces former Southern Conference opponent the University of North Carolina at Greensboro on Saturday at the Greensboro Coliseum.