No, the regular season did not end the way Duke wanted it to. There was no celebration, there were no championship banners, just Miles Plumlee standing at center court thanking the Duke faithful on senior night. Good news is, starting today, none of that matters. Duke saw its first action in the ACC tournament Friday night when it dispatched the 2nd-seeded Blue Devils dispatched of 10th-seeded Virginia Tech by a score of 60-56 at Atlanta’s Phillips Arena. Many call this tournament the Duke Invitational- Duke has been crowned champions of the ACC tournament in 10 of the last 13 seasons.
However, this year, the road to another ACC tournament championship would be a little bit tougher. Just as the regular season ended on a bad note with a loss to Carolina, the first days of the postseason were not favorable for the Blue Devils as well. On Tuesday the team received news that Ryan Kelly would be unable to play in the ACC tournament due to a sprained right foot that he suffered during practice. Kelly was not only a crucial piece of the Blue Devils offense due to his size, versatility, and ability to hit from outside, but he was also a part of Duke’s thin frontcourt rotation. While typically utilizing a three guard attack, Duke normally only uses Kelly along with Miles and Mason Plumlee at its forward spots. Especially with the Plumlees finding themselves in foul trouble during Duke’s last few games, this meant that the Blue Devils would have to attack Virginia Tech with an undersized lineup.
The Duke team that we saw on the court against Virginia Tech was different from the team we’d been watching all season. This was both good and bad. Unlike the team we’d seen knock down shots from long distance all year, Duke was not stroking it from deep against the Hokies. They only shot 5-for-26 on the game- just a 19.2% clip, half of their season average. Meanwhile, Duke played far scrappier basketball than I’d seen them play all year. They were getting it done with defense, and although they only forced 10 Hokies turnovers on the game, a little bit of hustle went a long way for Duke. It seemed as though they were everywhere on the defensive end. They were timing their switches perfectly and their help-side defense was working to perfection. It seemed as though nearly every Virginia Tech shot was a contested one, and although the Blue Devils struggled on the glass in the game’s opening minutes, they were able to pull down crucial rebounds when it counted the most.
Yes, this was an ugly game. A very ugly game. The first half was close throughout, and even when Duke started to knock down shots and pull away in the second half, Virginia Tech was able to find its way back into the contest. But personally I’m willing to sacrifice some style points for fighting out a gritty win. I’d much rather win a close game by playing sound defense and hustling than by shooting the lights out and running away by 30. The shots will start to fall, but this is the type of basketball we need to be playing regardless of whether or not we’re knocking down jumpers. As we progress farther into postseason play, we’ll need to do both to beat some of the best teams in the country. But for now, I am perfectly content with playing lockdown defense while we wait for this shots to start falling.
Kelly’s absence meant more playing time for Josh Hairston, who stepped up admirably off the bench and contributed 17 quality minutes. This was the most Hairston has played in a game since December 30. Although he only contributed four points and three rebounds, Hairston was a huge part of Duke’s defensive presence throughout the game. His ability to hustle on defense and body up in the paint was huge when playing with an undersized team. Especially when Miles Plumlee had to head to the bench in the first half after picking up two early fouls, Hairston’s effort was crucial to Duke’s success in this game. After not seeing very much action in most of his team’s biggest games this year, props to Josh for stepping up when Duke needed him the most.
Tyler Thornton was the MVP of this game. He contributed a career-high 13 points, adding four rebounds, two assists, and three steals. But it was what he added that doesn’t show up on a box score that was most important. Tyler emerged as a floor general tonight, similar to what we saw from him earlier in the season. He controlled the pace of the game, and embraced the fact that his team would have to grind out a win. He was constantly vocal on both ends of the floor, which was crucial to Duke’s success, especially on the defensive end. Although he only registered three steals, he completely changed the game on the defensive end, knocking down many passes, providing constant pressure, and getting in the face of Virginia Tech’s star guard, Erick Green, and making him fight for every shot. Tyler was also not afraid to step up and take big shots. He knocked down Duke’s opening bucket of the game with a 3-pointer, and little did we know but that would set the tone for the rest of the game. Thornton would go on to take 16 shots, including 13 from beyond the arc, which would be too many for him, if not for the amount of open looks he was getting. For some reason Virginia Tech felt very free to rotate off of him to supply double teams, leaving him open for a lot of looks. He’ll need to knock down a few more of those open threes moving forward, but he was definitely a presence that changed the outcome of this game.
This game highlighted a huge difference between Andre Dawkins and Seth Curry- Curry can still contribute when he does not score. Both of these players did not have very good games, each entering halftime without getting on the scoreboard. Dawkins was unable to bounce back, while Curry was able to fight through and make a difference. Andre finished 0-for-5 from the floor in 14 minutes. He looked lost on both ends of the floor. Seth turned it on in the second half, knocking down a huge three to get on the board and finished with nine points, six rebounds, and five assists. The Blue Devils had missed their previous 10 3-point attempts before Curry hit that shot. That kind of mental toughness is something that all of Duke’s players can take a lesson from moving forward.
Mason Plumlee was his usual man-child self, but with an added twist. Not only did he manage yet another efficient game with 12 points and 10 boards on 4-of-6 shooting, he went 4-for-5 from the free throw line. He’s shooting 79% from the charity stripe in his last three games, and has made a conscious effort to improve his free throw shooting during the second half of this season. Ever since his terrible 2-for-10 fiasco against Virginia, he’s been a different free throw shooter. I know it sounds a bit scary to say it, but I actually felt confident watching Mason Plumlee step to the line against Virginia Tech. Hopefully he’s able to carry this forward- he’s definitely getting hot at the right time.
It wasn’t pretty, it was very scrappy, but I think there are a lot of positives to pull out of a game that overall was not a very positive one. We showed that we could win without Ryan Kelly (keep in mind that we don’t know how long it will be until he is 100% again), we showed that we can win without hitting long range shots, and we showed that we can win by defending, not simply by outscoring our opponents. It’s a little disheartening to play inferior teams and consistently find ourselves in close game, but let’s face it, it’s tournament time. The only type of postseason game is a close game. By playing in high pressure situations throughout the season, we’re putting ourselves at an advantage over teams like Kentucky that are blowing their opponents out every night. Regardless of whether or not the other team is good enough to be playing us that tightly, learning how to win gritty, tight contests is how you have success in March. It’s time to put that to the test.