Duke overcame a slow start with a dominant second half in defeating Georgia Tech 73-57 Thursday night. The win runs Duke's record to 16-1 (3-1 ACC) and keeps the Blue Devils undefeated at Cameron.
It was a snowy, miserable evening outside and the just-as-cold-inside jokes practically write themselves. But when you shoot 9-33 in the opening half, you can't really complain.
Duke started Josh Hairston in Ryan Kelly's spot, while Tyler Thornton got the nod over struggling freshman Rasheed Sulaimon.
I don't think it unfair to either Thornton or Hairston to suggest that their talents lie in areas other than scoring the ball. So, that lineup is a bit offensively challenged especially when Mason Plumlee goes 2-12 in the opening half and Quinn Cook goes scoreless.
But it's hard to explain Duke's early rebounding woes. Georgia Tech grabbed the game's first seven rebounds, using that dominance to jump to a 9-2 lead.
Enter Amile Jefferson, Duke's freshman forward. Jefferson grabbed two rebounds in his first 30 seconds and brought some badly needed energy. "This is the game I love," he said. "I came to Duke for just that reason. To be out there, to bring that emotion that coach brings and give it back to him. The crowd gives us energy and I want to give it back to them."
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Still, Duke had a hard time chipping away at Tech's margin. Mason Plumlee kept missing jump hooks in the lane and no one else seemed inclined to take up the slack. Seth Curry and Mike Krzyzewski both used the word "timid" to describe Duke's first-half malaise. "We were hesitant to shoot," Mike Krzyzewski said. "No team of mine should ever feel that way."
Duke didn't get anything outside the lane or the foul line until Sulaimon buried a base-line 3 to cut Tech's lead to 17-16. Curry matched that and Duke had its only first-half lead, at 19-17.
Then the lid slammed shut, as Duke went five minutes without a point, missing 10 consecutive field goals and the first end of two one-and-ones.
The visitors used a 9-0 run to extend its lead to 26-19.
Brian Gregory said he was "disappointed" at the way his team closed out the first half, citing a Curry 3-pointer off a Thornton offensive rebound. "We never seem to catch a break on those plays."
Sulaimon hit another 3 and Jefferson closed the half with a lay-up. Tech led 28-27.
Mason Plumlee said he and Krzyzewski had some conversations at the half and they weren't talking Xs and Os. "He just wanted me to start playing. I really wasn't playing in the first half. Between us, we had a talk."
"We weren't as aggressive as we needed to be," Curry said of the opening half. "We came out in the second half and changed that. We came out with a lot of emotion, a lot of energy. Me and Mason came out and tried to be as aggressive as possible."
It worked. Cook started the second half with a 3-pointer in transition, Plumlee scored inside twice. Gregory used a timeout 2:50 into the half and another a minute later. But neither stopped the bleeding.
Krzyzewski responded to Duke's enthusiasm with some enthusiasm of his own, practically mugging Plumlee, after his senior center muscled in a basket inside. "That's a helluva coach, to come out and give you a hug during the game," Plumlee said.
Krzyzewski added "I give emotion. I'm going to give my team whatever I think my team needs."
Sulaimon and Jefferson both started the second half and both made strong cases for future starting roles. "They gave us a lift," Plumlee noted. "Then we got Seth going in the second half, got him open and then he hit some shots where he got himself open."
Curry was on fire down the stretch, squelching any chance Tech had of mounting a comeback. He hit a 3 in transition to make it 39-31, another 3 for 44-31, converted an offensive rebound for 46-32 and punctuated the win with a contested 3-pointer as the shot clock hit zero, giving Duke a 63-49 lead with 5:17 left.
It got a little chippy after that but Duke responded by milking the clock and knocking down some freebies.
Curry ended with 24 points, the eighth time this season he's scored 20 or more. He was 6-7 from beyond the arc.
Plumlee had 16 points and 13 rebounds, his 11th double-double of the season. He shot 5-8 from the field in the second half.
Then there were the freshmen. Krzyzewski said Sulaimon had practiced well since the NC State game and that showed, with 15 points and five rebounds.
Jefferson had six points and a career-high 10 rebounds, drawing praise from Krzyzewski. "He started the second half and looked like a kid who has started for a while."
Duke doesn't play again until next Wednesday, at Miami. Krzyzewski says Duke is a "new team" without Ryan Kelly. "It's a huge adjustment for us with Ryan being out." He noted that Curry likely will be able to practice only once in the interim, making it difficult for Duke to figure out new ways to counter Kelly's absence.
Tech was led by freshman guard Chris Bolden, who scored 20 points. Bolden came into the contest averaging 5.0 points-per-game. His previous career-high was 12 points, against Tulane.
Duke forced 21 turnovers, while allowing only seven assists. Tech won the rebounding battle 43-40.
Duke has won 29 of the last 32 games against Georgia Tech.