DURHAM – This deep into the season, no team in the country is afforded the luxury of time. Every loss at this juncture of the season will factor into where – or if – a team will play in the NCAA Tournament.
Time is the least available product for No. 3 Duke, but it's the one good the Blue Devils need the most.
Without starting forward Ryan Kelly, Duke took an important first step by showing it can be a new – but still good – team, warding off a desperate Georgia Tech squad, 73-57, Thursday at Cameron Indoor Stadium
“This is a huge adjustment for us with Ryan being out,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “It's a whole different thing. Because we're Duke, everyone is talking about redemption or struggles – look, we have a new team.”
For the second consecutive game, Kelly was on the bench in street clothes because of a foot injury, and Duke (16-1, 3-1 Atlantic Coast Conference) was hot-and-cold in his absence.
Mason Plumlee had a poor first half, shooting 2-for-12 from the field in the for Duke, which trailed, 28-27, after the opening 20 minutes. The rest of the Blue Devils weren't much better, shooting 27 percent as a team and being outrebounded in the half.
The Blue Devils needed a brief spurt – however short – against the struggling Yellow Jackets (10-6, 0-4), and manufactured enough good minutes to stay perfect at home.
Duke went on a 17-3 run to begin the second half, punctuated by a Plumlee dunk that caused Krzyzewski to leap off the bench, meet Plumlee at midcourt and give him a huge hug.
“(Krzyzewski) was fired up. He knew I had a bad first half so he just wanted to get me going,” said Plumlee, who finished with a double-double of 16 points and 13 rebounds. “It's pretty cool when you have a coach that'll do that for you.”
Seth Curry was outstanding even in the face of the newfound attention he's receiving in the absence of Kelly, on whom Duke does not have a target for a return. The senior scored a game-high 24 points, hitting 6-for-7 from behind the arc.
Freshman Rasheed Sulaimon broke out of a month-long shooting slump with 15 points while fellow freshmen Amile Jefferson, who played nearly 30 minutes in Kelly's absence, added 10 rebounds, six of which came on the offensive end.
“Right now we just have to play as a team and score as a team to lift everyone up,” Jefferson said. “When I come off the bench and get the minutes, I have to make the most of them.”
Chris Bolden scored 20 points for Georgia Tech, but no other Yellow Jacket put up double figures in either points or rebounds.
The Yellow Jackets fell apart on the offensive end in the second half. Movement slowed as Duke built a lead, and possessions in which players found open teammates were few and far between. Georgia Tech finished with seven assists compared to 21 turnovers, and received only four points from its bench.
“... Sometimes young guys lose their composure a little bit,” Georgia Tech coach Brian Gregory said. “You saw a little bit of that, which is understandable, but right now in our program we have to make that unacceptable. That's part of the process.”
As Plumlee struggled in the first half, Duke's offense suffered with him.
Krzyzewski said he thought his team was hesitant to shoot, something that was all but forgotten after Quinn Cook hit a 3-pointer on Duke's first possession of the second half.
Plumlee picked up baskets on back-to-back possessions, then Jefferson added a layup. Curry hit a three just in front of Duke's bench 36 seconds later, and the floor opened up.
“We just needed to play with a little bit more emotion and energy,” Curry said. “In the first half, guys were playing a little timid, weren't really being as aggressive as we needed to be. We came out in the second half and changed that.”
The Blue Devils finished with 46 second-half points and outscored the Yellow Jackets by 17 points in the final 20 minutes.
Even with positive play to earn a victory, the Blue Devils are aware that they must change on the fly.
An away date with first-place Miami – which beat Duke in Cameron last season – awaits next Wednesday.
The Blue Devils likely will be without Kelly, and Curry continues to fight a nagging leg issue that Krzyzewski said will allow Curry to practice only once between now and Wednesday. But Duke doesn't have another way – it must adapt to survive.
“We're doing some different types of things, but you have to get into the games and work on it,” Curry said. “We're obviously nowhere near a perfect team right now. It's tough when you're playing well and then you've got to change directions in your offense.”