GREENSBORO — If the Elon University men's basketball game against Duke University on Wednesday night was in March and only lasted a half, a lot of brackets would have been burned.
But after leading 35-34 at halftime, the Phoenix was unable to maintain its early momentum in the second half, losing to the No. 5 Blue Devils 72-61 at the Greensboro Coliseum.
Duke’s 16-9 run at the start of the final half separated them and curtailed any chance of an upset on national television. The Phoenix’s 17 turnovers in the contest giftwrapped Duke with easy transition baskets. Despite falling just short of a monumental victory, Elon head coach Matt Matheny said he was proud of his team’s grit and poise against an elite opponent.
“We executed a game plan that I thought was effective on paper, but I think it was more effective with how our guys played with conviction,” Matheny said.
Elon was also exceptional from behind the 3-point line in the first half, draining seven shots from deep in the opening period. Three of those 3-pointers came from redshirt junior forward Brian Dawkins, who finished with a team-high 18 points in the game.
Contrastingly, Duke only shot 21 percent from beyond the arc in the half.
With four minutes before halftime, Duke was up 32-24 when Duke junior guard Grayson Allen tripped Elon sophomore guard Steven Santa Ana. Before Allen was ticked with a technical foul, both squads briefly skirmished. Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski felt Elon absorbed life from the incident, going on a run to take the one-point lead into the break. It was the first time Duke trailed at half this year and also the first time Elon led at the half against a ranked opponent under Matheny's tenure.
“We were definitely really excited about how we came out,” said Santa Ana, who scored 11 points. “We knew we needed to come out strong and play well with a team like this. At halftime, we were really confident to improve and we felt good that we could start the half well.”
Dawkins said the Phoenix can take tangible lessons from this game as Elon takes a week off before a final nonconference game, then starting Colonial Athletic Association play. While the hot shooting streak was an added bonus, the forward said the Phoenix can't constantly depend on it since Elon can't predict when it happens. Other factors, such as their defense, is what Dawkins wants to focus on for the future.
"When we come out and play hard and execute, the game normally takes care of itself," Dawkins said."We might not always be shooting well but our defense and our effort are what we can control. I think those are the two most important things we can build on going forward."
Elon returns to action at 8 p.m. next Wednesday when the Phoenix hosts non-NCAA school Central Pennsylvania University.