Duke ended the 2012 calendar year with a hard-fought, come-from-behind 90-77 win over Santa Clara.
Santa Clara isn't a program with a lot of name recognition in these parts and to be honest, I wasn't sure what to make of them coming in. They were 11-2, with a road-win over St. Louis on their resume. Their two losses, to Utah State and UC Santa Barbara, were both in overtime.
Then again, that win column was peppered with the likes of Utah Valley, Pacific Union and Cal Poly.
So, some skepticism seemed justified.
Consider me a skeptic no longer. Mike Krzyzewski called the visitors "an older group that's really well-coached." Their top players are all upper-classmen and they came to Cameron primed to strut their stuff.
Santa Clara coach Kerry Keating said the game-plan was simple. "You've got to come out with aggressiveness. You've got to come out fighting, you gotta come out ready to play and we did that."
Santa Clara jumped on top 5-0, the second basket a Redick-esq 25-footer from junior point Evan Roquemore. Santa Clara led 12-8, when Ryan Kelly buried a 3 to jumpstart a 17-2 run that also included 3-pointers from Tyler Thornton, Quinn Cook and Seth Curry.
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Before you could say "blowout," Santa Clara came storming back, mostly behind senior Kevin Foster. It couldn't have been much of a surprise for Duke. Foster missed much of last season with a suspension but two years ago he led the nation with 140 made 3-pointers.
Foster scored a dozen points in less than four minutes, helping put Santa Clara up 30-29.
That's Foster 12, Duke 4 in that span. C.J. McCollum visions, anyone?
Foster sat down with two fouls and the teams traded baskets until intermission, with Duke up 38-36.
Krzyzewski said Duke should have had 50 points at the half. The Devils missed half of their 14 first-half foul shots and more than a few makeable lay-ups.
Duke extended its lead to 41-38 out of the locker room, before Santa Clara went on a 7-0 run to regain the lead. As Keating said "I thought we got their attention a little bit longer than we might have expected at half-time."
But Santa Clara wasn't the only team with experience and coaching. Duke's senior trio of Mason Plumlee, Seth Curry and Ryan Kelly sparked the decisive run.
Kelly said the seniors were ready for the moment. "When you've experienced different types of game situations, you know you have to come through in those times. That's what leaders do. It's not just what you're saying, it's what you're doing. You've got to walk the walk. In those situations, we're confident."
Duke ramped up its aggressiveness and got Santa Clara in big foul trouble. Duke was shooting in the bonus barely five minutes into the second half.
Plumlee got Duke within a point with a three-point play, then put Duke up 46-45 with two foul shots.
Then Curry took over. Playing perhaps his best game in a Duke uniform, Curry scored from outside, from mid-range, at the rim off the dribble, even on an offensive rebound. His 3-pointer made it 49-45, with 14:33 left. Two minutes later, he again hit from beyond the arc, making it 54-46.
Krzyzewski said that Santa Clara couldn't stop a set that isolated Curry and Plumlee on one side. Curry got inside for a lay-up, Kelly fed Plumlee for a dunk, Curry got two more lay-ups and suddenly it was 67-50, a decisive 26-5 run.
Krzyzewski gave Tyler Thornton credit for helping to slow down Foster, who went almost nine minutes without a point.
Thornton fouled out and Foster hit some 3s late. But Duke settled down from the line, Quinn Cook controlled the tempo and Duke maintained its margin.
Curry had a Duke-career-high 31 points; he had 35 at Liberty. Foster ended with 29. Curry was 4 of 7 from beyond the arc but perhaps more impressively was 8 of 11 on 2-point shots.
Mason Plumlee had the kind of stat line that has made him perhaps the early leader for national player of the year honors, 22 points, 13 rebounds, and a block.
He also had five assists, four in the second half, several on nifty back-door passes. Plumlee calls this a "feel play. When you have guys who have played together so long, it's like a look in the eyes, you nod your head and they know when to go. It was working tonight. They're going to overplay our guys because they're good shooters. It's something that's going to be open if we can keep the floor spaced."
Cook had 15 points and five assists, while Kelly had his second double-double of the season, with 10 points and 11 rebounds.
The rebounds helped Duke to a solid 40-28 advantage on the boards. Kelly says maintaining that is a key. "It's something I have to constantly work at. It's something I have to pride myself on. It has to be a concentration on every game. If we can take an area that we've been weak in and turn it into a strength, that can help us to another level."
Krzyzewski agrees. "When you're putting pressure on people, you're extending your defense, which makes it hard to get back for rebounds. The final step to take is a difficult step to take. We're improving on it but it's not an easy thing to do."
Keating was justifiably proud of his team's effort. "I thought we showed something about our program and how far we've come. A few too many turnovers, too many missed opportunities. But we took it to them and that will help us."
Kelly says these are just the kind of games Duke needs. "This is the type of competition we want to play every single day. They hit us and we had to hit back. We had to make big plays, strong plays. And we did. Rebounding the ball, getting stops."
Duke finished 21-33 from the line, after starting 8-18. Mason Plumlee was 2-6 in the first half, 8-9 in the second.
Plumlee became the 61st Duke player to reach the 1,000-point total. He now has 1,003. Curry has 970 in a Duke uniform; he scored 707 in his season at Liberty. Kelly has 802. Plumlee also has 865 rebounds, tying him with Art Heyman for 13th place on the all-time Duke list.
Duke plays Davidson in Charlotte on Wednesday, the last non-ACC opponent until March, assuming, of course, that Duke advances to the post-season. Duke also enters a period with one mid-week game, one weekend game, no back-to-backs until tournament play, no nine-day lay-offs.