You have to give the University of Alabama at Birmingham basketball team some credit. The Blazers absorbed an opening blow that could have knocked them into the next zip code and outscored Duke 60-59 over the final 13:31 last night. Unfortunately, UAB was already 22 points behind at that juncture.
UAB sounds like one of those generic state schools that Al McGuire used to warn us about. But they do have some hoops tradition. They knocked Ralph Sampson and third-ranked Virginia out of the 1982 NCAA Tournament in the Sweet Sixteen and beat top-ranked Kentucky in the second round of the 2004 tournament. Gene Bartow coached there for almost two decades.
Mike Davis took over the UAB program in 2006-07 after leaving Indiana. Duke fans remember Davis for IU's upset of No. 1 Duke in the 2002 NCAA Tournament.
So, both the program and the coach have some history of upsets. And truth to be told, UAB is better than some ACC teams this year, maybe better than a lot of ACC schools.
Davis said his team had "a great opportunity" but "was a little jittery" at the start of the game. "We turned the basketball over a couple of times, missed some lay-ups. But they had a lot to do with it."
There was some apprehension that this game, coming between last Sunday's ACC opener against Miami and this Sunday's match with not-our-rival Maryland might be a trap game for the Blue Devils.
Duke put that notion in the rear-view mirror pretty quickly. After the visitors hit an early 3, Duke ran off 16 unanswered points by the first media timeout. It was 26-4 at the 13:31 mark. That's a 26-1 run against a 10-2 team with wins over Arkansas, Virginia Commonwealth and George Washington.
It truly was a dazzling display of basketball. Three steals in the first two minutes, fast breaks, 3-pointers by Kyle Singler, Nolan Smith and Smith again, in a span of just over two minutes.
Ryan Kelly says the opening stretch "was really exciting. It's something that we as a team pride ourselves on. We have to get on a good start, whether it be at the beginning of the game or halftime. It has to be all focus on the game at hand and tonight we really came out ready to play."
Mike Krzyzewski noted that it was impossible to sustain that level of excellence but that his team did a good job of withstanding UAB's inevitable counterpunches. The Blazers found their stride about the middle of the first half and matched Duke point for point.
Much of that was because of Jamarr Sanders, a senior wing Krzyzewski called "a really, really good player who could start for any team in the ACC. . . . a big-time player."
Sanders had 14 points at intermission. Duke led 51-36.
Duke never really let UAB get any closer. The margin was 14 once in the second half, at 65-51. The biggest second-half margin was 23 at 83-60. The final was 85-64.
Lots of Duke players played well. Singler struggled from the field but Krzyzewski praised his second-half defense on Sanders, who ended the game with 21. The head coach said that Mason Plumlee had "his best game at Duke, talking, playing with a presence," 14 points, nine rebounds and two blocks, on the floor for 18 minutes in the second half. Ryan Kelly and Andre Dawkins came in for their share of praise for contributing in a variety of ways without scoring lots of points. Duke outrebounded UAB 41-36, with five players grabbing between six and eight rebounds.
Then there's Nolan Smith. After the game, Davis called Smith "excellent," "unbelievable," " almost impossible to guard" and called his basketball IQ "off the charts" before running out of adjectives.
It's impossible to argue with any of this. Smith simply grabbed the game by the throat and never let up his grip. At one point he had outscored UAB 12-4.
Smith says he's seeing the floor better than ever before and is "just being confident with the ball," looking for openings in the defense and attacking.
Krzyzewski claims Smith is playing as well as anyone in the country, "at a high level at every facet of the game" and that Duke is feeding off his "leadership, poise, maturity."
Smith's 33 points was a career-high and was his fifth consecutive game with at least 20 points. Singler lauds his classmate's "killer instinct. He's unstoppable. When he has the ball, coming off the high screen, it's really tough to guard him, especially for 40 minutes. He's going to get by you."
Krzyzewski said doctors were in a conference call concerning Kyrie Irving's toe but that tests show "some improvement." My understanding is that the current course of action will continue. Irving was moving well without his crutches, although he says the crutches are around "somewhere."
Kyle Singler hit a 3 six minutes into the game to become the 11th player in Duke history to score more than 2,000 points. He ended the game with 2,010. Jim Spanarkel is next, at 2,012.
UAB entered the fifth nationally in 3-point percentage defense, allowing opponents only 26.7% shooting. Duke hit 8-17 on 3s. UAB was allowing 58.6 points per game and had not allowed more than 71 points to any opponent before meeting Duke.
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