For the first time in nearly three weeks Thursday, Duke was able to exhale. There was no rematch with North Carolina State, road escape at Boston College, biannual bloodletting against North Carolina or farewell trip to Maryland.
Instead, the sixth-ranked Blue Devils led by 10 early, by 20 at half and coasted to an 88-56 victory at Virginia Tech.
Since the last-place Hokies, losers of nine straight, offered little resistance, hold off on buying Duke Final Four stock. But for a team scarred from recent challenges, including an 83-81 setback Saturday at Maryland, the thumping was most welcome, its first routine win since Feb. 2 at Florida State.
“I thought we came in after three really good days of practice,” coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “We actually had a chance to practice. We worked a lot on our defense, and I thought it paid off today. We played outstanding defense.”
Tech (11-15, 2-11 ACC) shot 43.1 percent. Most glaringly, the Hokies shot 1-of-16 from beyond the 3-point arc.
Conversely, the Blue Devils (23-3, 10-3) made 12-of-17 threes, 8-of-9 in a first half that bordered on flawless. Duke shot 60 percent in the opening 20 minutes, made all 10 of its free throws and committed only three turnovers.
In the first 31-plus minutes, Duke went scoreless on consecutive possessions once. Just once. That’s a combination of offensive efficiency and defensive ineptness you’re unlikely to witness again soon.
Those back-to-back empty trips, by the way, came early in the first when Quinn Cook missed a jumper, and Mason Plumlee committed a turnover. The Blue Devils led 14-10.
By the time it happened again, midway through the second half, they led 68-43.
“We executed well,” Duke guard Seth Curry said. “We took good shots, and we got to the free throw line a lot. We kind of did a good job of slowing their offense down and trying to get the ball out of (Erick) Green’s hands.”
Playing in the arena where his father, Dell, starred for the Hokies, Curry, who rarely practices due to a lingering shin injury, scored 22 points, 19 in the first half. Freshman Rasheed Sulaimon added 17, and the pair combined to make 8-of-10 threes.
“They kind of really went all after Seth in the second half,” Krzyzewski said, “which opened up some drives for us. I thought we kicked the ball (back outside) really well. Rasheed had a very quiet 17, I thought, and a few of those were off of kicks that guys made.”
Duke limited Green, the nation’s top scorer, to 14 shots, his fewest in an ACC game this season. He still scored 22 points, just three shy of his average.
“We did something a little bit different in the full court to try to get the ball out of his hands and that went pretty well for us tonight,” Krzyzewski said. “Then you just make guys who haven’t been bringing the ball up the court bring it up. That can get into their legs a little bit. … Our guys did a really nice job of executing that.”
“Obviously he has to do a lot for his team every night,” Curry said of Green. “For him to get most of the attention from every defense and still put up good numbers and shoot a good percentage, that’s real impressive. … I felt like we did as good a job as we could.”
Coming off season-lows of four points and three rebounds against Maryland, Plumlee contributed 13 points, 12 boards, five assists and three blocked shots.
“I thought Mason played almost a perfect game,” Krzyzewski said.
Reserve point guard Tyler Thornton was as critical, with six points, five assists and no turnovers in 30 minutes. When starter Cook went to the bench with his third foul midway through the first half, Duke led 22-12. The Blue Devils doubled their lead with him sidelined.
“Tyler’s been such an important player for us, and I thought he really took control of the team at that point,” Krzyzewski said. “I really believe Mason asserted himself a little bit more leadership-wise. Huge part of the game. We were able to have a 20-point lead at halftime with Quinn out 11 minutes. Hopefully that doesn’t happen again.”
The overarching issue surrounding Duke’s postseason prospects is senior forward Ryan Kelly’s injured right foot. Kelly, the team’s third-leading scorer, No. 2 rebounder and most accurate 3-point shooter, missed his 11th consecutive game Thursday, and while he’s shed crutches, the foot remains in a boot.
“Yesterday he ran for 15 minutes in the pool,” Krzyzewski said, “and he’s doing a lot of physical stuff with his hips, legs and core with medicine ball and stuff like that. He’s sore, but his foot’s not sore.
“So we’re more optimistic. Again, no timetable. But it’s moving, it’s moving in the right direction. Now we believe we’re going to get him back. It’s just a matter of when.”
Duke has five regular-season games left, including rematches with league-leading and second-ranked Miami – the Hurricanes blitzed the Blue Devils by 27 last month -- and North Carolina. Not blending Kelly back into the rotation until the postseason would be dicey.
Two years ago, you’ll recall, Duke freshman prodigy Kyrie Irving returned for the NCAA tournament after an extended absence with a toe injury. Gifted as Irving was, and is, the transition was far from seamless, and the top-seeded and defending national champion Blue Devils lost to Arizona in a regional semifinal.
“He’s shooting free throws now, but he hasn’t done basketball stuff yet,” Krzyzewski said of Kelly. “Hopefully we can get to that next week. Our (medical staff) have done a good job of bringing him along. I’m not going to try to put any pressure on them. But I’d like to see him get some activity before the NCAA tournament.”
How dangerous might the Blue Devils be in the tournament? We’ll learn far more when they play Miami and at Carolina than we did Thursday.
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