RALEIGH, N.C. -- This basketball season has become a process of continual evolution for top-ranked Duke, and its 71-63 victory over North Carolina State yesterday afternoon was another step toward the future.
The Blue Devils, completing a four-game road trip that exposed them to a variety of dangers, got some timely three-point shooting from center Christian Laettner and made an early attitude adjustment on defense to dismiss any ideas the 12,400 fans had of seeing a Wolfpack upset.
Duke (20-1, 10-1), still learning to play without injured point guard Bobby Hurley, methodically picked apart the Wolfpack (9-15, 3-8), sending N.C. State to a school-record ninth straight defeat, a mark Les Robinson's team had somehow hoped to avoid.
The victory didn't come without a scare to the Blue Devils. Grant Hill injured his right shoulder early in the game but, after a moment of concern, Hill went on to score 20 points, grab six rebounds and dish out six assists, going the distance for the third straight game.
"Grant came over to me and said, 'My shoulder's killing me,' " Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. "I said, 'OK . . . just watch out.' I mean, if he leaves the game . . . 'Amaker!' "
It was a joking reference to assistant coach Tommy Amaker, the former Duke point guard, who may be the only person on the bench capable of taking over the Blue Devils if both Hill and Hurley were lost.
Things never got that serious, however. The Wolfpack, desperately trying to ignite the kind of emotional fire storm that helped sweep it past North Carolina last month, never got into a rhythm for two reasons: Duke's defense and the foul trouble that clouded Tom Gugliotta's day.
"I give our team an A for effort," Robinson said. "We played smart about 75 percent of the time so I'll give us a B-minus. But to beat the No. 1 team in the country, you have to have an A in both departments."
Gugliotta scored 23 but nothing came easily. He picked up his third foul with 5:11 remaining in the first half and watched from the bench until the second half began, by which time Duke had a 36-31 lead.
Gugliotta was whistled for his fourth foul with 16:22 left in the game and, though he sat out for only two minutes, he could never break free of Duke's defense.
Without Hurley, the Blue Devils don't get quite the defensive pressure they did and, consequently, they don't create as many easy scoring opportunities.
Duke still gets chances to soar -- Brian Davis had two slams off turnovers -- but the Blue Devils have become more halfcourt-oriented.
Unlike their win at Georgia Tech Wednesday, in which they relied on a matchup zone, the Blue Devils played an aggressive man-to-man that exposed the vulnerability of N.C. State's young backcourt.
With Gugliotta being shadowed by a variety of players, even Laettner, N.C. State had no one who seemed capable of creating his own shot against the Blue Devils.
Duke shot just 43 percent in the first half, but Laettner did some crucial damage when he hit consecutive three-pointers to end the period.
The Wolfpack had closed within a point with Gugliotta on the bench before Laettner, patiently waiting for designed plays to develop, shot the Blue Devils to a five-point lead.
"You know if you hit one shot, you're going to launch another one," said Laettner, who later made another three-pointer to push Duke's second-half lead to 14 as the Blue Devils shot 66 percent in the second half.