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Sunday, January 9, 2011

Duke's most interesting game of the year, and 15th win

Posted by on Sun, Jan 9, 2011 at 11:15 PM

The Duke Blue Devils’ last loss was to the Maryland Terrapins on March 3, 2010, the final home game for three Maryland seniors and the culmination of a Maryland hot streak that made them a national contender late last year. Since that loss, though, the Devils have had the hot streak. They’ve won 24 straight, including a national championship and, this year, the season’s first 14 contest. Sunday night in Durham, then, No. 1 Duke had a lot to prove and maintain with a win against the unranked, much smaller Terrapins.

“We’re not this great basketball team,” Coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “We’re a good basketball team that has to gain maturity.”

Tonight, then, was a perfect lesson: The Terrapins played with the sort of tenacity that generally characterizes Duke teams, whether flailing about and racing for loose balls or rushing back to get in position on defense. And it worked, too, giving Maryland a six-point lead in the second half. That’s the most Duke has been down this season—versus any team in any game.

“We haven’t been in a game like that,” said Krzyzewski. “Michigan State was the closest, but even then, I thought we were the aggressor.”

But Duke prevailed with its suffocating defense and, later in the second half, its offensive precision. Seniors Nolan Smith and Kyle Singler combined for well over half of the team’s 71 points, with Singler scoring 25 off of a handful of three-pointers and three-point plays. Despite his lowest points total in weeks, Smith tiptoed toward a triple-double, matching seven rebounds with eight assists and 18 points. What’s more, they contributed at the perfect moments, as when Smith tied the game with less than a minute left in the first half or Singler added the dagger by hitting a long-distance three with just under a minute left to play.

“Ask everyone in the country, and I think both of those guys would be in anybody’s top 10 seniors,” Maryland coach Gary Williams said after the game. “They don’t get tired out there.”

Those are the contributions that Duke generally expects. Sunday night, those weren’t the difference. Rather, Tyler Thornton—a freshman guard who’s averaged less than 8 minutes in the 12 games he’d played before tonight—and sharp-shooting redshirt sophomore Seth Curry gave Duke the unexpected lift. Curry didn’t shoot at all in the first half, but a series of pivotal jumpers—many quick ducks beneath a defender on the outside—kept Duke in the game when shots in the first half simply weren’t falling. Thornton scored only two, but his quick move to the basket in the second half helped push Duke out of the deep deficit they’d built. He finished with four steals and a few drawn charges and gave Smith a break from bringing the ball up the court.

“For a youngster in a game like this, and not playing in the first half, for Tyler to play as well as he did, it is one of the things that makes you love coaching,” said Krzyzewski. “He was a difference maker. How would you predict that?”

Duke improves to 15—0, but, as Krzyzewski noted, they’ve still got work to do. Sophomore Ryan Kelly ran into one of his cold streaks, missing all of his four three-point attempts. Sophomore Mason Plumlee, for instance, has been sporadically terrific this year, but tonight he fouled out with only 18 minutes of play, no points and five turnovers in the paint. Sophomore forward Jordan Williams gave Duke fits inside, scoring 23 points and grabbing 13 rebounds. Both numbers best his team-leading averages.

The Blue Devils travels to Florida State Wednesday.

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