NEW YORK — Duke was in rare territory for one of college basketball's premier programs over the last few decades. So the ninth-ranked Blue Devils went back to basics to right things for at least one game, a 76-69 victory over St. John's on Thursday night.
"We stopped playing with an edge on defense and that happens and it doesn't take much for it to happen," Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said after the Blue Devils snapped a two-game losing streak that was part of them losing four of six. "We just have to find that edge and tonight we were closer to it and Elliott helped in that regard. It was a collective response on the defensive end."
Freshman Elliott Williams, who Krzyzewski said added some "verve" in recent practices, made just his second start of the season and he was the early spark Duke needed on the defensive end, pressuring the ball and improving the team's speed.
"I found out I was starting two days ago after a couple of good practices," said Williams, who had a career-high 11 points on 5-for-6 shooting at Madison Square Garden. "I tried to be a spark for the veteran guys. I tried to think of it as just a game but it was pretty exciting."
Gerald Henderson scored 19 points for the Blue Devils as the starters scored all but four points.
The Blue Devils (21-5) looked more like the team that has spent the entire season in the top 10, including one week at No. 1, hitting 3-pointers and converting turnovers into points.
"This has been a tough time for us, the last couple of weeks but that's what the Atlantic Coast Conference and the Big East does to its members," Krzyzewski said. "We were knocked back a little bit and we have to recover. This was a big step in the right direction."
The Blue Devils finished 7-for-15 on 3s (46.7 percent), the first time since Jan. 24 they shot better than 33 percent from beyond the arc. They were 3-for-16 in the loss to Boston College on Sunday.
"We weren't in a slump, it's a game of percentages and they come around," Singler said, sounding like the shooter he is. "We got good shots tonight and we made good shots."
D.J. Kennedy had 20 points for the Red Storm (12-14), who have lost five straight overall and six in a row to Duke. The Blue Devils have won 13 of the last 15 meetings and this win improves their record at Madison Square Garden in the series to 5-1.
With Singler and Scheyer both going 2-for-3 on 3s in the first half and St. John's matching its season average for a game with 14 turnovers, Duke was able to take a lead as big as 32-18 with 4:48 left and the Blue Devils led 37-26 at halftime.
They led by as many as 16 points in the second half, the last time at 60-44 on a jumper by Thomas with 10:09 to play. St. John's closed to 74-69 on two free throws by Malik Boothe with 15.6 seconds to play, but Scheyer made two free throws to seal it.
"We just didn't get some shots down," said St. John's coach Norm Roberts whose team shot 54 percent (27-for-50), its second-best mark of the season. He did explain the turnovers. "Youth and inexperience and trying to make something happen when it's not there."
Henderson said the Blue Devils did take the game as a must-win.
"Absolutely we did. We had lost four of six," he said. "We got a win and that's part of how we want to play. This was a big win for us."
The Red Storm dropped to 1-6 this season against ranked teams, the lone win over Notre Dame.
"You can always look back and say (what if), but you've got to realize who you're playing against," Kennedy said. "You're playing against some of the best teams in the country. One mistake or two mistakes can open it right up."
Paris Horne, St. John's leading scorer with a 15.0 average, was coming off a 23-point effort that included a career-high six 3-pointers against Marquette. He was held to seven points in a foul-plagued 20 minutes, only the fifth time this season he didn't reach double figures.