After this game, it might be a while before anyone tries to intimidate Greg Paulus again.
We didn't see the play, but we understand that Javi Gonzalez decked Paulus, who clearly was infuriated: a few plays later, he took down Brandon Costner, giving an NBA-type hard foul. Costner took exception to the foul and had to be restrained. Paulus, meanwhile, having apparently made his point, had made his way to the bench for the scheduled media timeout.
Duke was down nine at the half, and we didn't see much to encourage us, frankly. Duke started the game off with a defense that was like a fist in the face,. and the pressure really shocked State. After a few plays, though, the intensity wore off, and State bega to get the ball to J.J. Hickson for easy points. State led Duke at the half, only the second time all season that the opponent led at the half (Maryland was the first).
Before the break, Paulus was obviously and unquestionably angry. After the break, he did something about it. Duke roared back into the game behind baskets by Singler, Henderson, and Lance Thomas, and with a lead shaved down to 49-46, Paulus went to work.
Paulus hit three threes in less than two minutes, and the route was on. After his three made baskets, Paulus assisted on two more, the lead was 59-55, and the game was all but over.
It's hard to even explain how good the guy was, and we're not sure yet (haven't seen the tape yet) how well it translates to television. This is the Paulus we've glimpsed at times and just love: the tough-as-nails guy who can inspire his team to follow him. Captains can often lead their team and it's a valuable function, and Duke's lucky enough to have a really good one now in DeMarcus Nelson. There is room, though, for others to step up, and Paulus is clearly becoming one of them. At his best, he's a sparkpug in the mold of Hurley or Wojo.
State is an improving team, and while point guard play is still an issue, Gonzalez was at times fairly steady. Marques Johnson let the pressure get in his head and only played 13 minutes.
It was striking to watch them, though. During introductions, the players didn't exactly huddle up. They almost didn't acknowledge each other. Hickson plays hard and has a huge upside. Gavin Grant had a sensational day, shooting 9-11 for 26 points. Hickson and Costner had 14 apiece.
Speaking of Costner, it's pretty clear where a lot of State's problems lie. He's out of shape, he walks when he should run, and gives off an aura that suggests he be given the benefit of the doubt.
He's the most out of shape frontcourt player we've seen since Charles Barkley's early days at Auburn. He's a big tub of goo.
Bottom line, though, is that Duke turned the intensity up to a level that State couldn't match, and did it pretty much everywhere. In the first half, State outrebounded Duke 19-9 in the second half, Duke pushed that to 19-7, with ten of them offensive. In the first half State shot 57.7%; Duke shot 45.8%. In the second half, the Devils shot a scorching 65.5%.
Most importantly, though, State grew tired. Costner's shots stopped dropping. Courtney Fells was almost shut out. Gavin Grant finished with 26 but was slowed considerably in the second half.
There were a number of players who deserve praise for what they did: Kyle Singler finished with 19 points and solid defense on Hickson. Lance Thomas scored only four points but was offensively aggressive. Gerald Henderson was phenomenal at times, and his second-half tip-in was the stuff of legend.
With the win, Duke goes to 6-0 in the conference, and only UNC has a reasonable shot of catching them anytime soon. There's a rematch coming, but no worries. This team is ready for almost anything.