Looking to rebound from a terrible, terrible, terrible loss to Temple in Philadelphia, Duke headed to Atlanta to open their ACC regular season schedule against Georgia Tech. We projected the Yellow Jackets, who were coming off of three consecutive losses to Mercer, Fordham, and Alabama, to finish 8th in the conference in our ACC preview. Despite Georgia Tech’s recent woes, there is no such thing as an easy road game in the ACC, and this game was the perfect example. The Blue Devils were able to come away with an 81-74 victory against the Yellow Jackets, but it appears Duke still hasn’t hit its stride after a hard-fought and competitive contest.
Mike Krzyzewski tends to make lineup changes after tough losses, so it was no surprise that Coach K shook up the starting lineup for Duke’s ACC opener. Miles Plumlee re-entered the starting lineup for the first time since November 15 against Michigan State after a very strong showing against Temple. He replaced Ryan Kelly, who was an absolute non-factor against the Owls, playing just 19 minutes and scoring five points. But the real story of the game was the long-awaited first career start for point guard Quinn Cook. Cook was chosen over Tyler Thornton, who had started Duke’s previous six games but whose production had diminished as of late.
If you were a little worried about Duke coming into this game, you weren’t after the first 12 minutes against Georgia Tech. The Blue Devils jumped out to a 31-14 lead thanks to a quick start from Cook, Mason Plumlee, and Ryan Kelly. This fast start from Duke simply seemed to rattle the hornet’s nest, if you will, and the Yellow Jackets came alive. With the Blue Devils facing foul trouble early on, Georgia Tech stormed back, ending the half on a 21-8 run to pull within five.
The second half was tight throughout, and with each passing minute that Duke failed to pull away, the pressure continued to mount. The Blue Devils struggled to hit shots from beyond the arc, knocking down just 6-of-22 for the game. Glen Rice Jr., who was relatively quiet in the first half, absolutely took over the last nine minutes of the game. It was as though he couldn’t miss a shot, shooting 6-for-7 down the stretch for 15 of his game-high 28 points. Georgia Tech was able to pull within two with 2:58 to go and had an opportunity to tie the game, but Mfon Udofia missed both of his shots from the foul line. After an Austin Rivers steal and layup pushed Duke’s lead back up to four, Rice had his own opportunity from the charity stripe, but he too missed both shots. Seth Curry added an exclamation point to the win, putting the game out of reach with a lob to Mason Plumlee for an emphatic finish. The Yellow Jackets’ failure to capitalize from the line combined with fantastic foul shooting from the Blue Devils sealed this tough road victory.
Kelly was undoubtedly the man of the afternoon for Duke, with one of the most interesting stat lines we’ve seen in quite some time. Kelly, who got off to a hot start early in the game, shot just 3-of-4 from the field, but thanks to a perfect 14-for-14 from the free throw line led the Blue Devils with 21 points. He did not attempt a field goal for the last 16:12 of the game. Kelly’s free-throw shooting was stellar, to say the least, and it led an excellent all-around performance by the Blue Devils at the line. Duke, who has struggled with foul shooting all season, shot 29-of-36 from the free throw line on the afternoon. Although Kelly’s foul shooting preserved the win for the Blue Devils, he was not much of a factor other than the beginning and the end of this game. His first nine points came within the first 10 minutes of the game, and he scored just two points between the 10:29 mark of the first half and the 4:09 mark of the second half. Clearly this is a picky analysis of Kelly’s play, as he took advantage of his opportunities down the stretch and made sure Duke would not drop a second consecutive game, but you’d like to see him recognize when he’s the hot hand on the floor and continue taking shots. But overall it was nice to see Ryan bounce back after his worst showing of the season against Temple.
Cook played quite well in his first start for Duke, adding 10 points and five assists in 27 minutes. He commanded the floor with confidence in his first ACC contest, slashing to the bucket in the game’s early minutes and setting up teammates with crisp passes. One of the highlights of the game was his phenomenal behind-the-head dishto Austin Rivers, which placed third on DukeBluePlanet’s top plays of the game. It was a strong all-around effort, though he did take a few ill-advised shots from beyond the arc. He shot 1-for-4 from 3-point range on the afternoon and has shot just 30% from deep on the year. With five assists in the game, Cook’s assist-to-turnover ratio now sits at 4.43:1, which is the best in all of college basketball. Quinn will continue to grow into his role as this team’s starting point guard throughout Duke’s ACC schedule, but in the past few games we’ve already caught glimpses of the type of playmaker he can be.
Rivers struggled yet again, scoring just eight points on 3-of-10 from the floor. This continues to be a season of ups and downs for Rivers, but you hope he is due for a breakout game relatively soon. It just wasn’t working for Austin against Georgia Tech- his shots weren’t falling and he was torched by Glenn Rice Jr. on the defensive end. He even missed two crucial free throws down the stretch that could have come back to haunt the Blue Devils. Luckily the Yellow Jackets had much larger issues from the free throw line on their hands.
Although it is great to get a first ACC victory on the road, we need to address the elephant in the room here- this team is having trouble closing out games. We saw similar issues against Michigan State, Tennessee, Michigan, and Washington, where Duke allowed double digit leads to evaporate late in the game. The Blue Devils had Georgia Tech on the ropes early, jumping out to a quick 17-point lead. That should have been it right there. They should have been able to coast into halftime with a 20-point lead and let the second half play out for an easy blowout win, but they let the Yellow Jackets back in the game and suddenly had a tight second half on their hands. Luckily Duke was able to hold on, but heading into their ACC schedule the Blue Devils need to learn how to put teams away.
A statistical analysis of the Temple and Georgia Tech games is coming later today. Stay Crazie, my friends.
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