Duke won its 12th consecutive regular-season opener and 87th consecutive non-ACC home game Friday night, edging Belmont 77-76.
For a casual fan, the tightness of the game might come as a surprise. But the best mid-majors have proven they can compete with anybody in the college hoops landscape and Belmont is quietly becoming one of the best mid-majors. The Bruins first landed on Duke's radar screen back in 2008, when they pushed Duke to the limits in the NCAA Tournament's first round. They've since proven that that game was no aberration. The Atlantic Sun champions went 30-5 last season and led the NCAA in scoring margin, at 17.5 points per game.
Most of that team returns this season. Belmont started three seniors and two juniors against Duke. Mike Krzyzewski said he had worried about this game all summer and fall, calling Belmont big, deep and mature.
Still, Duke had plenty of chances to put away the visitors. Duke didn't take its first lead until seven minutes into the game but gradually built up its lead, with Seth Curry hitting from downtown and Austin Rivers living at the foul line.
It was 39-30 at the intermission. Belmont missed all seven of its 3-pointers in the first half, a big shock for a team that made 327 from long-range last season, third best in the NCAA.
Belmont coach Rick Byrd said Duke's defense took his team out of their comfort zone early. "We couldn't complete passes. We went more to penetration. We got better when we did that. We set more ball screens than usual."
The second-half was a half of runs. Duke extended its lead to 11, Belmont cut it to four, then Duke went on a 12-0 run, taking its biggest lead at 53-37.
Tyler Thornton provided much of the spark for that surge. In one marvelous 90-second spurt, the sophomore reserve assisted Ryan Kelly on a three-point play, notched two steals and buried a 3-pointer.
Krzyzewski said Duke got "a little giddy" at that point. Belmont's wings consistently beat Duke's wings for loose-ball rebounds, giving the visitors extra chances, a gift they took advantage of; Belmont had 14 second-chance points, Duke only 11.
Belmont finally started hitting from the outside. Their first three-pointer came following a long, offensive rebound. Ian Clark, the Atlantic Sun's preseason Player of the Year, didn't score for almost 29 minutes but ended the game with 13 points. And point guard Kerron Johnson penetrated almost at will, ending the game with six assists.
There was another factor in Belmont's comeback. Last season they led the NCAA in bench points. Byrd substitutes like a hockey coach, wave after wave after wave. Ten Bruins played at least seven minutes at Duke. Krzyzewski said Belmont wore down Curry and the team as a whole got a little tired.
Duke turned it over 19 times, ten of those in the second half. Many of those came when players dribbled into traffic, not only losing the ball, but generating Belmont fast breaks. Krzyzewski acknowledged that his team over-penetrated . "We didn't do a good job of kicking it out."
Still, Duke made enough plays down the stretch to hold off Belmont. Thornton converted two foul shots to put Duke up 72-66 with 1:24 left. But Thornton committed his fourth and fifth fouls on consecutive possessions, sandwiched around a Curry turnover. Suddenly, Duke's lead was down to a single point, at 72-71, with 52 seconds left.
Byrd said he didn't even consider fouling, trusting his defense to get him a stop, with time left to win the game. Duke called timeout with 28 seconds left on the game clock. Curry got the ball to Andre Dawkins, who had missed all four of his 3-pointers up to that point. With four seconds left on the shot clock and a hand in his face, Dawkins drained a 3-pointer. Krzyzewski called the shot "pure."
Belmont got a quick score, timeout and foul. Ryan Kelly made the final winning play, making both foul shots, putting Duke up by four. Clark hit a meaningless 3-pointer at the buzzer.
Byrd said Curry (16 points, 4 assists) "won the game by making huge shots. He made us pay for slight defensive mistakes." But Mason Plumlee (13 points, 14 rebounds, 6 assists), Rivers (16 points), Kelly (12 points, 6 rebounds) and Thornton (10 points, 3 steals) all had solid games to build on.
Duke has plenty to work on and not much time before Presbyterian, on paper a much easier opponent than Belmont. Krzyzewski said his team got better against Belmont. "We had lots of game pressure. We grew up a lot tonight. You can't practice these things. I'm pleased with our team. Our fans need to know we played a really good basketball team tonight. We need to keep growing."
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