Duke feeling good heading into postseason
A regular season that saw plenty of accomplishment mixed with a period of struggle ended on the best of notes for Duke on Saturday night.
The No. 3-ranked Blue Devils trounced rival North Carolina 69-53 at the Smith Center in Chapel Hill Saturday night, meaning they’ll head into the postseason riding a three-game winning streak.
With the ACC and NCAA tournaments up next, Duke (27-4) appears poised to add significantly to that streak.
The Blue Devils won for the 18th time this season without a loss with senior forward Ryan Kelly in the starting lineup. In the 13 games Kelly missed while sidelined by a right foot injury from Jan. 8 to Feb. 28, the Blue Devils went 9-4.
Kelly, a 6-11 senior forward, returned on March 2 and led Duke to three wins to close out the regular season. Those three games, Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said, will go a long way toward the Blue Devils being as cohesive as possible in the postseason.
“I don’t think we have the best team in the country by far,” Krzyzewski said. “We have a good team, but the best chemistry. They really enjoyed playing with each other (before Kelly’s injury) and we’re trying to develop that again. It doesn’t just happen, but I’m proud of the guys when Ryan was out to keep the ship afloat.”
The good ship Duke now rides into the ACC Tournament, where the No. 2-seeded Blue Devils will begin play on Friday at 7 p.m. at the Greensboro Coliseum. One of four teams to earn byes into the quarterfinals, Duke will play the winner of Thursday’s first-round game between No. 7 seed Maryland and No. 10 seed Wake Forest.
Completing the regular-season sweep over rival UNC, and doing it by scoring the game’s first 14 points to take control Saturday night, gives the Blue Devils plenty of good vibes for the postseason.
“You want to be playing your best going into the tournament,” Duke senior center Mason Plumlee said. “You can’t get to this point in the season where you are questioning lineups and what your identity is. So I thought it was a good solid win and it was the kind of win we needed going into tournament time.”
The Blue Devils shot 69 percent in the first half against UNC as senior guard Seth Curry scored 18 of his 20 points in the first 20 minutes. Plumlee, who had eight points at halftime, took over in the second half to finish with 23 points and 13 rebounds.
On defense, Duke held UNC to 33.9 percent shooting. It’s the 12th time this season Duke has held an opponent below 40 percent shooting.
“Duke’s defense was better than our offense and Duke’s offense was stronger than our defense was,” UNC coach Roy Williams said. “They played a heck of a lot better and were the better team.”
Kelly, after scoring 36 and 18 points in his first two games back from injury, only scored eight points on 2 of 4 shooting against UNC. It’s only the third time in his 18 games this season Kelly failed to score at least 10 points.
But, Krzyzewski said, Kelly’s mere presence allowed Plumlee more room to roam and produce.
“I think Mason really benefits from having Ryan back,” Krzyzewski said, “because it makes him tough to double. If he’s one on one in the post, he’s pretty successful. I thought he showed tremendous poise.”
Duke’s coaching staff is equally as complimentary of its entire team’s poise to persevere without Kelly for nearly two months.
Because they did that, and because Kelly is back, hopes are high for what Duke can accomplish over the next four weeks as it chases its fifth NCAA championship.
But, sophomore point guard Quinn Cook said, another tournament comes first.
“We just want to stay hungry for this ACC Tournament,” Cook said.