Duke got a much tougher game from Georgia Tech than just about anyone expected.Â Unintentionally, the Yellow Jackets probably did Duke a favor.
A lot of fans, us included, sort of forget that this is still a young team. The only full-time returning starters are Mason Plumlee and Seth Curry. Ryan Kelly started a fair amount last year, Miles Plumlee has off and on during his career, but Duke had a significant challenge coming into the season: replacing two great and experienced leaders in Nolan Smith and Kyle Singler.
And a lot of fans, us included, just naturally assume that things will always roll along, that the big blue train is always on time.
The truth of course is that every team develops at it's own speed and on it's own timetable.
Duke took a major sock to the nose against Ohio State and lost poise.Â Against Temple, less so: Temple was better, but Duke hung in there.
And while Tech gave this game their all, and did everything you could reasonably expect from a team with a talent deficit and a new coach, the key to this game is that Duke didn't buckle.
And they could have because Tech took it to the Devils.Â Mfon Udofia, who has had a tough time manning the point, had one of the best games of his career. Udofia was 6-9 from the floor, had four boards and four assists and generally played with a lot of heart.
So did Glen Rice.Â He's had a really up-and-down year, but Rice came through in a big way on Saturday, scoring 28 points, including two or three - we lost count in the anxiety of the closing minutes - where he shot the ball on the way down.
It has to be a shot he's worked on, but it seems strange.Â Effective though.
Jason Morris certainly had his moments as well, including a spectacular dunk.
For Duke, though they started off gangbusters and built an 18 point lead, the key in this game wasn't that they lost it.
It was, again, poise.
Duke was up 32-14 when Tech caught fire and cut the lead to 40-35 at the end of the half. That's a 21-8 run.
Still, despite perhaps Tech's best game of the year, Duke held the lead. In the second half it went as high as 10 points and as low as two twice in the waning moments.
Yet even though the momentum was on Tech's side, and the lead was just 68-66 with 2:02 to go, and the game pressure was on Duke, the Devils held firm.
Austin Rivers, who has mostly made his reputation on offense, made a critical steal and bagged a layup with 1:56 to go to put the lead back to four.
Then Rice missed a pair of free throws, right after Udofia had missed a pair a minute earlier.
Seth Curry hit Mason Plumlee for a crucial alley-oop and then the free throws were on:
Curry split a pair and Kelly made eight down the stretch.
There's no question that Duke was vulnerable in this game and our initial reaction was that that was the key here.
But it's not.
The key is resilience and poise.Â The key is guys like Rivers, Curry, Mason Plumlee and Kelly stepped up. No one panicked.
There's still a long way to go and we don't know yet how this group will form and who will become the most reliable leaders.
But we do know what they took out of this game, and that it's important.
Duke started a different lineup with both Plumlees, Seth Curry, Austin Rivers and Quinn Cook getting his first career start...Ryan Kelly had 21 points including 14-14 from the free throw line...Cook, who has the best assist-turnover ratio in the nation, had four assists to one turnover in 27 minutes...and the Plumlee Daily Double: 16 points, 11 boards, three blocks and three assists...
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