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Richard Ranger, Courtside In Alaska!

Two different halves of basketball. How ugly was the first half? It was 11-11 at 11:54. The stats sheets say that Duke scored 31 percent, and Liberty 26 percent. I think there are better odds at some tables in Vegas. How good was the second half? Michael Thompson entered the game at 8:56, played eight minutes until scratched in the eye, scored seven points, and played with increasing confidence. The road to that outcome was paved with slashing layups by Chris Duhon and Daniel Ewing, quick feet and aggressive defense that left the Liberty Flames with few uncontested shots or open looks (the Flames had 12 assists and 22 turnovers), and much better banging inside for rebounds. But from the looks on Blue Devil faces in the shoot-around in the closing minutes of the halftime break, the second half may have begun with a bit of locker room persuasion behind closed doors. In the first half, the Blue Devil team was appearing in the second round of the Great Alaska Shootout. In the second half, they were on a mission. We didn’t see the Detroit game, but from what we saw this evening it’s possible to think that the real Duke season began in the second half of tonight’s game against Liberty.

The Blue Devils started flat, as if the travel day was yesterday, instead of earlier in the week. The outside shooting was cold, and too much shooting off the dribble looked forced. The Liberty Flames seemed to be able to penetrate too easily. Good Duke plays on either end that could have sparked a run were followed by a turnover, or by answering points from Liberty. Duke steals frittered away into an abyss of poorly chosen shots or errant passes. The officiating calls may have seemed inconsistent, but one had the sense that a perceived bad call would get under the players’ skins a bit.

Even Anchorage, a venue that Duke owned in two previous Great Alaska Shootouts, seemed tentative. Liberty had a large and raucous delegation, comprised not just of fans of the underdog du jour, but a good many people apparently affiliated with the large congregation known as Anchorage Baptist Temple. ABT broadcasts its services twice each Sunday. Its school, Anchorage Christian, is a regular contender for the State’s 3A crown (don’t laugh – we take basketball seriously here in Alaska). Liberty head coach Randy Dunton got his head coaching start at Anchorage Christian. ABT’s pastor Rev. Jerry Prevo is an intimate of Liberty President Jerry Falwell, and the two of them entered Sullivan Arena together. The atmosphere felt different at the Sullivan, but then this was Duke’s first appearance at the Shootout without Trajan Langdon either on the sidelines in a suit (injured as he was in ’95), or in uniform as he was in 98.

Possession by possession, tonight’s game became Chris Duhon’s game, and maybe that will be its value for the team. Many times in the first half, and early in the second half, when it seemed as if Duke had to score, Chris Duhon, choreographed the possession. He stalked the perimeter, feinting like some large predatory cat, then dished or drove to the basket. His eyes burned with cold fire. More than any of his teammates, he harassed Liberty between the three point lines.

Shavlik Randolph took another step toward excellence tonight. He banged his way to seven points and eight rebounds, along with a couple of blocks. Shav’s work under the boards early in the second half was central to the Devils getting second chances on possessions that enabled them to pull away from the pesky Flames. Shav also complemented Shelden Willliams’ work, and took a couple of charges (one a no call) that showed that he’s for real. Shelden, for his part, made a “not in my neighborhood block” early in the second half that had to be heard all the way back in Lynchburg. Still, the Flames came prepared. Liberty got the message from the University of Pacific, and was all over Loul Deng and J. J. Redick. J. J’s 3-for 13 had moments where it looked as ugly as it sounds, but he simply turned back down the court and harassed another Liberty Flame, or got in someone’s way. So it wasn’t his best night. He has no quit in him, Luol found often found himself out on the perimeter with no clear path to the basket. Fine. For a second night he proved he is as graceful and deadly from the arc as any big man we’ve seen.

Sean Dockery had some quality defensive minutes, but his drives to the basket remain an adventure. Melchionni had some serviceable action in middle relief for our wing men. Andy Borman got off a textbook three in the late minutes of the second half.

Tomorrow night the Devils face a blue collar Purdue team, whose win over Seton Hall was uglier than Duke’s over Liberty – uglier than coach Gene Keady’s current comb-over. Keady is a fine coach, and year in and year out his Purdue teams make an impact in the Big Ten – frequently in seasons where other coaches and other teams get the pre-season ink. He’s one of the better game situation and tactical coaches around. The Boilermakers were in true November form tonight, but so, too, was Seton Hall, and in the second half, Purdue showed the Pirates why the Age of Piracy ended during the Age of Steam. Still, you find yourself wishing that Coach Keady consider donating his comb-over to Locks of Love; Catherine and I think he’d make the West Lafayette Chapter the Locks of Love Chapter of the Year. But, back to business. Purdue gives the look of a team that capitalizes on opponent’s mistakes. So far in this Shootout, the Duke Blue Devils have shown themselves a team that is still in the midst of working mistakes out of its system. If Duke takes the floor at Sullivan Arena Saturday night with the commitment to play like they did in the second half of tonight’s game against Liberty, then we think they can say that the Devils’ 2003-2004 season started here. If they start out as flat as they did against Pacific and Liberty, they will find themselves playing exceedingly ugly Big Ten basketball, against a team whose coach is capable of raising ugly to an art form – the Velasquez of ugly, as it were -- and who wouldn’t mind a notch on his gun in the form of an old English :D”.

Maybe it’s a good idea to check the Blue Devil faces in the shoot-around.