Ryan Kelly's injury pays dividends as reserves have experience
What could have been a season-sinking circumstance instead has allowed Duke to fall back on an unexpected weapon during the NCAA Tournament’s first weekend.
And it’s a big reason why the No. 6 Blue Devils are playing in the tournament’s second weekend.
Ranked No. 1 in the country at the time, Duke lost senior forward Ryan Kelly to a right foot injury for 13 games. The Blue Devils lost four games during that stretch, but the nine wins they notched with reserves Amile Jefferson and Josh Hairston taking turns filling Kelly’s lineup spot kept strong enough to get a high NCAA Tournament seed.
On Sunday night, when Kelly and fellow senior Mason Plumlee fell into serious foul trouble, the minutes Jefferson and Hairston played in January and February paid off.
Jefferson and Hairston, along with junior guard Tyler Thornton, soaked up minutes with Kelly and Plumlee out, making big plays along the way, helping Duke defeat Creighton 66-50 at Philadelphia’s Wells Fargo Center.
“It just showed the toughness of our team,” Duke freshman guard Rasheed Sulaimon said. “We had a lot of foul trouble and everybody stepped up to the occasion. Everybody played hard. It took every one of us to get the win.”
Guarding Creighton all-American forward Doug McDermott, Kelly picked up three fouls in the first half. Plumlee, Duke’s 6-10 all-ACC center, was whistled for his third foul less than three minutes after halftime.
That meant Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski had to go to his bench to mix and match, trying to keep McDermott and the No. 22-ranked Bluejays at bay while finding ways to keep Kelly and Plumlee from fouling out.
“Our bench came through for us,” Krzyzewski said. “Tyler, Josh and Amile were outstanding contributors for us.”
Hairston, a 6-7 junior forward, who averages 2.6 points and 2.2 rebounds, played 10 minutes, grabbing five rebounds before fouling out.
Having played an 11 combined minutes since Kelly returned from injury on March 2, Jefferson played 11 minutes against Creighton. He made his only shot, scoring two points, while grabbing two rebounds and blocking one shot.
Their statistics, though, only tell part of the story. It was the confidence they played with that stood out to their teammates.
“We really had each other’s back out there, especially when Ryan and Mason were in tremendous foul trouble,” Sulaimon said. “Josh, Tyler and Amile, when they came off the bench, really stepped up. They didn’t let anyone down. They picked up the energy. It really took all of us to get this win.”
Playing in his hometown, Jefferson relished the opportunity to contribute again.
“I was happy to be out there helping these guys,” said Jefferson, a 6-8 freshman forward. “Our seniors have been great. But they got into foul trouble. Our bench did a tremendous job of not letting us fall through the cracks. Everybody came through.”
The minutes he and Hairston played while Kelly was out, Jefferson said, made them more confident players.
“I was happy to be out there and get that game time experience to help the team and get some wins,” Jefferson said of the 13-game stretch without Kelly. “When Ryan came back, I thought we were even a better team.”
Because of the win over Creighton, Duke (29-5) moves to Indianapolis this week for the Midwest Regional semifinals. Next up for the second-seeded Blue Devils is No.3 seed Michigan State (27-8) on Friday (9:45 p.m., WRAL) at Lucas Oil Stadium.
Duke’s starters know more than ever that they have a solid bench should they need the help.
“It says a lot about our team,” Duke point guard Quinn Cook said. “It’s guys staying ready, staying focused.”