DURHAM – Before the season, N.C. State's trip to Duke figured to be a contest of national championship contenders. After the Wolfpack's victory against the Blue Devils in early January, the contest figured to at least play a large part in determining who would win the Atlantic Coast Conference regular season title.
Injuries to key players dialed back the drama, but the two teams combined for a good game, anyway.
No. 4 Duke built a big first-half lead and held back a hot-shooting N.C. State squad, 98-85, Thursday at Cameron Indoor Stadium.
“For two teams that have key players out, what a performance by both teams,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “That was ACC basketball (Thursday). I thought both teams played their hearts out.”
The Blue Devils (20-2, 7-2 Atlantic Coast Conference) played in their seventh full game without injured starting forward Ryan Kelly, while N.C. State was missing starting point guard Lorenzo Brown for the second straight game.
The circumstances created a game in which neither team had much in the way of a bench, and Duke gave itself the early edge with its best offensive first half of the season. Duke began the game by making seven of its first nine field goals, while N.C. State (16-7, 5-5) missed 11 straight attempts early in the first half and allowed the Blue Devils to take a 25-6 lead.
“The way (Duke) started was just terrific. They've played as well as I've seen them play,” N.C. State coach Mark Gottfried said. “We had a hard time keeping them from scoring. … I thought in probably the first eight to 10 minutes, they were just sensational.”
The Blue Devils made 10 3-pointers in the first half alone. Mason Plumlee, Quinn Cook and Seth Curry were in double figures by halftime, at which point Duke held a 58-37 lead.
“It seemed like the whole season we couldn't get off to good starts, and thee last two games we've gotten off to great starts,” Curry said. “It can't get any better than that.”
The roles reversed in the second half.
N.C. State hit 13 of its first 15 field goals in the second half and cut a 21-point lead down to 13 with 8:16 to play.
The Wolfpack continued to chip away, shortening the lead to nine points three separate times in the final two minutes. On two of those occasions, Duke scored on the next possession. On the other, N.C. State created a turnover but missed a lay-up, leading to two Duke free throws.
“We just couldn't seem to get one or two more stops and scores at the same time when we needed to,” Gottfried said. “We could almost get it under 10 and get it right in there, and (Duke) did a nice job of pushing it out there.”
Scott Wood hit a deep 3-pointer with 1:07 to play in regulation to trim Duke's lead to eight, but with so little time and no inside options – Richard Howell and C.J. Leslie both fouled out in the later stages of the second half – the Wolfpack could come no closer.
Plumlee finished with 30 points to lead all scorers, while Curry had 26 and Cook ended up with 21 for Duke.
Howell led the Wolfpack with 23 points, while Leslie had 16.
There was more harrowing news for the Wolfpack. In addition to Brown, who Gottfried said is “doubtful” for Sunday's game at Clemson, Wood tweaked his groin in the first half, though he returned and managed to play.
His availability for the Wolfpack's game Sunday is uncertain.
“He pulled his groin pretty hard,” Gottfried said. “We'll see. He told me he could play. I was a little bit cautious leaving him in there – certainly don't want to hurt him more but he felt good.
“ … Obviously it's something we don't need to have happen to us right now, but if it happens, we roll on.”
The Blue Devils' win clinched their 17th-straight season with at least 20 wins.
It was also their 15th straight win against N.C. State at Cameron.
In its own injury situation, Krzyzewski said Kelly is “getting better” but still not ready to return to game action. Josh Hairston also did not play because an elbow injury.
Duke lost its first game without Kelly – against the Wolfpack on Jan. 12 – but has since learned its way around the injury.
“We're always getting better. We are considerably better than those first couple of games (without Kelly),” Plumlee said. “... We've just got to keep it going.”
Nick Piotrowicz can be reached at 407-9952 or email@example.com