DURHAM – In a year filled with highly ranked teams playing musical chairs at the top of the rankings, one clear contender took care of one clear bottom-dweller.
No. 6 Duke routed Boston College, 89-68, Sunday at Cameron Indoor Stadium.
It was a formality game on paper, but the Blue Devils treated the contest with appropriate desperation, strengthening their grasp on second place in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
The Blue Devils, even with their high rank, have said they are just like everyone else, trying to escape each game with a victory.
“We’ve been trying to survive, which no one believes,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “That’s what we’ve been trying to do. And get better along with doing that.”
In an undoubtedly good sign for Duke (24-3, 11-3 ACC), its young players pushed the game out of reach in the first half.
Freshmen Rasheed Sulaimon and Amile Jefferson and sophomore Quinn Cook combined to score 35 points in the first half against the Eagles (12-15, 4-10), who have never won at Cameron Indoor Stadium.
Jefferson’s tough bucket in the lane began a 12-0 first-half run that gave Duke command of the game. Cook’s two free throws on the next possession gave the Blue Devils a lead at 15:45 of the first half that they never lost.
Later in the half, Sulaimon scored 15 points in an eight minute stretch – including made field goals on three straight Duke possessions – and helped Duke establish a 51-27 lead at halftime.
“We’ve come a long way,” Jefferson said of Duke’s young players. “It starts in practice with the older guys re-enforcing what Duke does and what it means to be a Duke player. We had to come out here fighting because this is one of (the seniors’) last games in Cameron.”
Cook had 12 points and Jefferson set a career-high for points with 14.
Sulaimon finished with a career-high of his own, scoring 27 points of to lead all scorers. The freshman, who looked lost and couldn’t find his shot for a month-long stretch earlier this season, has become and integral part of the Blue Devils’ offense.
“Early on in the season I was doing a lot of second-guessing, not wanting to make mistakes,” Sulaimon said. “Now my teammates and the coaching staff have a great deal of confidence in me, and I always want to make them feel proud of me, so I’m just trusting in myself and trying to play my game.”
Krzyzewksi noted one thing in particular.
“One of the things he did (Sunday) was he played through contact and finish(ed) instead of trying to just get his shot off,” Krzyzewski said. “It’s a sign of growth.”
Mason Plumlee recorded his 16th double-double of the season by scoring 19 points and adding 15 rebounds. The Blue Devils improved to 30-4 in the past four years when Plumlee earns a double-double.
Duke led by as many as 29 in the first half and kept Boston College from establishing any type of rhythm in the first 20 minutes. The Eagles committed 13 turnovers in the first half.
Though the Eagles began scoring after halftime, the Blue Devils led by at least 21 points for the duration of the second half.
“I thought they had great intensity defensively after the first TV timeout and for the rest of the (first) half,” Krzyzewski said. “Second half, I thought we started the half real well. And to get that lead, it’s – you know, you would like to have them play at that level defensively throughout, but (Boston College) is a good team. They’re not going to give up.”
Ryan Anderson was efficient for the Eagles, scoring 23 points on 8-for-13 shooting, but Duke kept the Eagles’ supporting cast from making up ground in the second half. Boston College didn’t have another go-to scorer besides Anderson, especially after guard Olivier Hanlan earned his fourth foul.
In addition to winning a key game and establishing a two-game lead against third-place North Carolina, the effort of Duke’s young players against Boston College gave the team another benefit. Seth Curry, who has been suffering from a nagging shin injury – which can only be healed by rest – didn’t have to play his normal 31 minutes per game.
Curry, who often cannot practice because of the injury, instead played 25 realtively low-impact minutes against Boston College.
“It’s good to get a big win and get some rest,” Curry said. “We have three days before the Virginia game, so I’m not worried about (the injury).”
Duke travels to Virginia on Thursday. A loss to the Cavaliers or a Miami win against Virginia Tech on Wednesday will give the Hurricanes the ACC regular season championship
The Blue Devils and Hurricanes meet in Durham on Saturday.
“We’re not paying attention to conference race, we’re not paying attention to seeds,” Krzyzewski said. “The only thing we’re paying attention to is the next game.
“... We’re running our own race.”
Nick Piotrowicz can be reached at 407-9952 or npiotrowicz@ rmtelegram.com.