With his punch to the face of the prone Greg Paulus, Ryan Reid likely earned himself a conference-sponsored suspension. That punch was literal. Florida State's punch was metaphorical, but just like Paulus did, Duke got up, dusted itself off, and won the game 70-57 - and grew up a lot in the process.
First for Reid - that was the dirtiest intentional play we've seen since Chris Paul slugged Julius Hodges in the nuts a couple of years ago (for those of you who are about to e-mail us that the Gerald Henderson-Tyler Hansbrough injury last season was intentional, please don't bother - it wasn't).
It was particularly stupid, since he had just worked his way back from a nine-game suspension. Paulus had contact with him on the play, but he was clearly going for the ball. There's no excuse for slugging someone who is flat on his back, and judging by the woozy look Paulus had, not to mention the welt on his face, he took a good lick.
So, of course, did Duke. After a first half which was solid, other than taking care of the ball, Duke let FSU roar back, and the 'Noles actually took the lead, 55-54, with 3:46 left to play. The place was going nuts, and everything seemed to be going Florida State's way.
Then, for the second time this season, Kyle Singler hit a clutch three (the first one was against Pitt, in a losing cause), and we're starting to get the feeling that he likes that role.
Good thing. Duke needed some clutch play at that point.
Despite an absolutely spectacular first half by Jon "On Fire" Scheyer, we never really had the feeling that things were entirely in order. Maybe it was the turnovers, maybe it was the fact that Scheyer and Taylor King provided the vast majority of the first-half scoring, when the starters seemed offensively anemic. Duke built up a 17 point lead, but it had dwindled to 12 by halftime, and Florida State cut into it aggressively as the second half unfolded.
Despite the erratic offensive performance in the first half, the defense was still pretty solid, although that was partly because Florida State more or less refused to pass the ball. But still: the defense was good.
It wasn't as good in the second half, and Florida State's offense was better. Those factors, along with Duke's inability to hang on to the ball, gave all the momentum to FSU, which they were unable to fully exploit.
Singler's willingness to step up was huge, but so was Paulus's. For much of the game, he was mediocre. But at the end, like Singler, Paulus was able to rise to the occasion. Paulus hit a basket to push the lead back to five, and a short time later, hit another to push it back to seven.
Let's go back to Scheyer for a minute. Obviously he's adapted well to his sixth man role. The guy at Duke who filled that role best recently was probably Mike Dunleavy, who was a superb sixth man his freshman year. Duke had a very limited bench, and his versatility made him a one man rotation, because he could come in for at least four different players.
Yet as good as Dunleavy was, at least for us, it was always a question of when, as in when would he truly reach his potential. He never really did at Duke, although his performance against Arizona in the title game was spectacular.
But he was also highly erratic. For our money, Scheyer has become, in many ways, a better player than Dunleavy was. Does that mean he's a shoo-in for the NBA? No. But he's already more reliable and predictable than Dunleavy was.
His first half was just incredible. It wasn't just his shooting, although it's hard to beat 7-10. It was his overall awareness, his hustle, his ability to come off the bench and just ignite his team. It was really brilliant basketball.
Offense and ballhandling were clearly problems. But there were some other aspects of the game that were really good. For one, Duke held FSU to 35.5% for the game. And while DeMarcus Nelson and Gerald Henderson didn't score a lot, they grabbed eight and six boards respectively. Nolan Smith got seven and Kyle Singler added six. This was a really solid team effort on the boards.
You also have to tip your hat to Florida State. They could have given up. They've had lots of problems and no one would have been that down on them if they did, frankly, because the expectations of Florida State basketball are so minimal. But they didn't. They're short-handed, and just plain short, and they hung in there and fought like hell. We didn't like what Reid did, but it's hard not to admire the collective effort of this team.
The best thing about this game was this: Duke took a haymaker, let the lead and very nearly the game get away, let Florida State out-tough them. In spite of everything that went wrong, they found their heart.
In New York, Coach K criticized his team's toughness. For much of the second half, he was bound to have done so again, and after the game he said this:
"For awhile there it looked like there's no way we're going to win it and (then) our kids got tough. After they had been the weakest they got to be the toughest. I don't know how that works, but it worked tonight."
Indeed it did. Let's hope it continues.