It's probably too early to state with certainty that Duke has put the Miami horror-show in the rear-view mirror. But they made a good start Saturday, putting away a tough, physical Maryland squad 84-64.
Duke looked like Duke, hitting 3s, playing tough defense, forcing turnovers. Mike Krzyzewski called the win "the first step towards becoming who we are going to be" in the continued absence of Ryan Kelly.
Ironically, the win was keyed by a player who started the game so poorly that Duke pulled him out before the first media timeout. Rasheed Sulaimon was tasked with keeping Dez Wells off the boards. Wells pulled down five rebounds-three on the offensive glass-in the first 2:24, keeping Maryland close. Wells had Maryland's first seven points.
Duke pulled Sulaimon. Krzyzewski said he "got on" the freshman. Sulaimon responded "I got you coach. I'll do better." Krzyzewski called this embracing responsibility.
Sulaimon talked the talk and walked the walk. He dunked in transition before coming out but channeled his inner J.J. Redick upon re-entry. He converted a four-point play to put Duke up 18-13, then nailed three more 3-pointers, making it 27-18. That's 13 points in a span of 2:43.
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"Quinn and Mase and Seth and everybody out there put me in great position to shoot the ball and I'm just fortunate they went in," Sulaimon said. "We had great energy. We're going to continue to play like that the rest of the year. We were very anxious to get out there and see how we were going to respond to adversity. Everybody was nervous but I think we responded well. It started on defense. I think we set the tone from the get-go."
Maryland hung around largely on their ability to rebound their own misses. They started a huge lineup, twin towers Alex Len and Shaq Cleare, 6-8 Jake Layman, 6-5 Wells and 6-5 Nick Faust.
There's not really a point guard in the bunch. Freshman Seth Allen was held out of the first half after being late for a meeting and Mark Turgeon doesn't seem to have a lot of confidence in junior incumbent, Pe'Shon Howard, who played 21 minutes off the bench.
The Terps mauled Duke on the glass early but Duke made up for some of it by forcing turnovers. Cleare, a 265-pound freshman, played Mason Plumlee almost like a soccer defender marking an opposing scorer, bumping Plumlee at every opportunity and funneling him into the long-armed Len, who actually appears to be taller than his listed 7-1.
Mason had a modest four points at the half and didn't grab a rebound until more than 11 minutes had elapsed.
But Plumlee also had three first-half assists and gained Krzyzewski's praise for correctly reading the defense and finding the open man.
"If I do that, it gets them easier shots," Plumlee said. "Teams are going to scout us and we have to adjust. I think we did a good job of that today. Guys hit shots."
Sulaimon wasn't the only freshman to make a positive impact for Duke. Duke needs Kelly back without question. But Amile Jefferson is making the best of his opportunity, using quickness, length and energy to battle bigger players inside.
"I'm a fighter." Jefferson says. "No matter how big the guy is, no matter how strong the guy is, I'm going to fight them, to do everything in my power to keep them out of our basket and attack their basket and make them work."
Jefferson had nine points and six rebounds at the half, including a late bucket that sent Duke to the locker room up 43-35.
Plumlee called that late field-goal "huge. He really bothers people. His length, you think you're going to get a rebound and he just snatches it. He can give us a huge lift."
Maryland never got any closer than seven after that. Seth Curry hit a foul-line jumper to open the second half and then Plumlee took over, hitting a layup and then converting an offensive rebound.
Krzyzewski cited as crucial a 3-point basket by Curry. With Duke up 51-42, Wells blocked Jefferson in transition. But Curry grabbed the long rebound and drained the jumper, giving Duke its biggest lead up to that point.
Krzyzewski called it a "Duke shot."
Duke finally was holding its own on the boards and Maryland simply didn't have enough firepower to eat into the lead of a team which Turgeon said "played 40 minutes of really good basketball."
Plumlee punctuated the win with a play that we'll be talking about for some time, a reverse dunk off an offensive rebound with 3:22 left that made it 79-59 and brought down the house.
Even Krzyzewski was impressed. The Duke coach said Plumlee's second half was "as good as he's played all year."
Plumlee ended with 19 points and seven rebounds, Curry with 13 points. Quinn Cook had 11 points, nine assists and directed an offense that committed only four turnovers, none in the second half. Chew on that last stat for a while.
Then there were the freshmen. Sulaimon finished with a career and game-high 25 points, while Jefferson ended with 11 points, 9 rebounds and three blocks. The last was a career-high.
Perhaps most impressive for Jefferson is the 24 minutes played, with only three fouls. Jefferson says he's learning the defensive rotations, learning where to be and when to be there. The days of fouling out in 12 minutes should be a thing of the past.
Duke had 18 assists to go with those four turnovers, while forcing 14 Terrapin turnovers.
Wells and reserve Charles Mitchell led Maryland with 13 points, while Plumlee helped hold Len to eight points, six below his average.
No, you didn't blink. Mason Plumlee did not jump on the opening tap. Sulaimon said Plumlee told his team "We're going to let them get the ball and set a statement for the game."
Plumlee's thumb? "I tore a little ligament and I'm wearing a plate just to protect it. But it's fine. Guys play with broken thumbs."
Krzyzewski declined a post-game opportunity to talk about Maryland's pending departure for greener pastures. The Crazies, however, mixed the usual "not our rivals" chant with a couple of newbies, "ACC, ACC" and "don't come back."
They may not come back. There's no guarantee that Duke will host Maryland next season, or ever again. Hard to believe but we may have seen the last Maryland trip to Cameron.
If so, it will end 55-16 Duke.
Krzyzewski did reiterate that Duke expects Kelly to return this season, although he did not offer an ETA.