DURHAM – Ryan Kelly made 3-pointers from the corner. He made them from the top of the key, from right next to the arc and several feet behind it.
He made shots unguarded and with an arm in face. He made free throws, mid-range jumpers, a floater in the lane and drew fouls at will.
Kelly made shots with Duke trailing and leading, in the first and second halves, to end runs and begin them.
He made shots with Miami ignoring him, double-teaming him and off pick-and-rolls and pull-ups.
As Kelly’s evening began to feel like he was 20 years too late to win a Big Mac from Michael Jordan and Larry Bird, everyone present began to ask the same questions.
What exactly has Ryan Kelly been doing in the two months he has been injured? And where can one apply for his treatment?
Kelly scored a career-high 36 points in the biggest game of the season, helping No. 3 Duke beat league-leading and No. 5 Miami, 79-76, on Saturday at Cameron Indoor Stadium.
“We were all privileged to see a performance for the ages, I think, by Ryan Kelly,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “Me saying ‘spectacular’ or whatever doesn’t do his performance justice. One for the ages.
“Probably as good a performance as a Duke player has had at Cameron.”
In a game with nine ties and 13 lead-changes, Duke (25-4, 12-4 Atlantic Coast Conference) put away the game with a furious run late in the second half.
With little more than four minutes remaining and Duke leading Miami (23-5, 14-2), 68-65, in a contest that felt more like a regional final, the Blue Devils made the decisive run. Rasheed Sulaimon hit two consecutive layups, and Quinn Cook hit a 3-pointer for a 7-0 run to push the Duke lead to 10 in a span of just more than a minute.
The Hurricanes charged back with two 3-pointers and five free throws in the next minutes and two seconds. After Duke guard Seth Curry made a free throw, the Hurricanes had two looks from behind the arc in the final six seconds with a chance to tie the game, but both Shane Larkin’s deep attempt to the left of the key and Rion Brown’s try from the corner were wayward.
Though his teammates won the game with the late run, Kelly put them in position to do so.
“That kid is special, man,” Sulaimon said of Kelly. “He lifted us throughout that game. It was a tough start, especially in the first half. Miami’s a great team. Without him in that first half, it would have been a much different game.”
Kelly, who had not played and barely practiced since Jan. 8, missed his first shot of the evening Saturday but showed no rust thereafter. He hit five 3-pointers in the first half alone, scoring 20 points before halftime though Miami held a two-point lead at the break.
Kelly’s 20 first-half points were more than the combined points of all the other Blue Devils, who shot 6-for-17 from the floor in the first 20 minutes.
Kelly’s teammates found out he would be starting Friday even though he barely had practiced.
Krzyzewski estimated Kelly participated for all of 20 minutes in Duke’s most recent practice.
The Blue Devils didn’t know what, if anything, Kelly would be able to do.
Even Kelly didn’t.
“Honestly, more than anything, it was just whether I was going to hold up with my breathing,” Kelly said. “I hadn’t played a game in a long time, and being in a game is a lot different from practice or anything you can do. I think I held up all right.”
Some of Kelly’s teammates were skeptical of him starting in the first place, simply because the game was big and Kelly’s production was a major uncertainty.
“Coach was like, “Ryan’s gonna start,’ and I was like, ‘All right. Cool,’” a wide-smiling Mason Plumlee said. “But, man, there’s not anybody that’s not happy for him in this locker room. I can’t imagine sitting out that much. But that’s the way to come back.”
With 15:46 to play in the second half, Kelly dished an assist that tied that game. Then he hit two free throws 41 seconds later to tie it again. Then he hit a jumper later in the half to take the lead.
And then he scored five straight points halfway through the period to morph a three-point deficit into a two-point lead.
Then, for good measure, he matched Miami’s next made bucket, a 3-pointer, with a triple of his own on Duke’s very next possession.
And on top of all that, Kelly hit eight of his 10 second-half free throws, scored all his points on just 14 field goals and came just short of producing a partridge in a pear tree.
“I thought we had prepared for Ryan Kelly, but obviously not for that Ryan Kelly,” Miami coach Jim Larranaga said. “... 36 points on 14 shots. That is, quite frankly, ridiculous.”
Larranaga went on to say that he thought Miami actually did a nice job on Kelly for the most part.
There wasn’t much the Hurricanes did incorrectly.
“One of the 3s that he hit, I turned to my staff and said, ‘This guy is unconscious,’” Larranaga said. “It was 30 feet (away from the basket).”
Larkin scored 25 points to lead Miami, while Kenny Kadji added 17 points, 10 rebounds and a highlight-reel dunk.
Curry, who has played alongside Kelly since 2009, had no better explanation than the spectators in regard to Kelly’s sublime Saturday.
“Man, I don’t even know what to say. He was making every shot. He had the legs to do that after not playing for two months,” said Curry, his face showing disbelief. “I don’t know what to say. It’s something you’ll remember forever.”
Duke won nine of its 13 games without Kelly and maintained a top-five ranking for all but one week of his absence, in which it was ranked sixth. The Blue Devils said all along they were totally different without Kelly, but even now that he’s back, the process isn’t finished yet.
Of course, more nights like Saturday from Kelly would make that process a little more rosy.
“We have to keep growing,” Krzyzewski said. “Obviously, we can’t expect him to to score 36 points every night. But if he did, that would be all right.”
Nick Piotrowicz can be reached at 407-9952 or npiotrowicz@ rmtelegram.com