GREENSBORO, N.C. — Nolan Smith had already seen his teammate Kyrie Irving miss most of the season with a toe injury. But with a spot in the ACC tournament championship game on the line, Smith never planned on watching Saturday’s semifinal matchup from the sideline.
The senior guard bounced back from a jammed toe he suffered in Friday’s win over Maryland, pouring in 27 points against Virginia Tech to help Duke come away with a 77-63 victory. Although Smith’s status for the semifinal game was initially in doubt Friday night, x-rays came back negative, and he played Saturday as if nothing had ever happened to his toe.
“Seeing my team fight so hard [Friday night], I wanted to get back on the court,” Smith said. “An injury is not going to stop me at this time of the year. We only have a couple more games to go. I’m a senior, and I just want to help my team win games.”
Despite his desire to put the injury behind him, Smith struggled in the game’s opening minutes. He started off by missing a pair of free throws and saw his first 3-point attempt clank off the backboard without hitting the rim.
He finally showed a flash of his usual offensive brilliance with 14 minutes remaining, though, driving the lane for a layup that tied the game at 10.
Smith then took charge of the team as he’s done so many times this season, scoring 10 straight points in a span of two and a half minutes midway through the period. His 3-pointer out of the media timeout with 7:34 remaining put the Blue Devils up 26-16—and Duke’s lead never slipped below seven points for the rest of the half.
While the ACC player of the year provided the spark for the offense, the Blue Devils’ defense found a way to contain the big man who dominated in Virginia Tech’s 64-60 upset win over Duke Feb. 26. Forward Jeff Allen racked up 18 points and 15 rebounds in the earlier meeting, but his bank shot over Kyle Singler early in Saturday’s contest proved to be his only basket of the game.
“Overall the matchup on Allen was a key one,” head coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “Whether it was Mason, Kyle or Ryan [guarding him]—to only have him get two points was a difference maker for the ball game.”
The Plumlee brothers and Kelly also kept Allen and center Victor Davila from hurting Duke on the offensive glass. Virginia Tech managed only four second-chance points in the first half and lost the battle for possession on balls that either team could have recovered.
“We could not get a 50-50 ball in the first half,” Virginia Tech head coach Seth Greenberg said. “We had to guard for 60 seconds some possessions, and in a game of this magnitude, we just weren’t as alert in terms of pursuing loose balls as we had been the previous two days.”
Duke’s big men not only turned in a solid defensive effort, but they made the most of their touches on offense as well. Kelly and the Plumlees combined for 22 points in the game on 9-for-16 shooting.
Trailing by 11 points at halftime, the Hokies began the second half with a 7-2 run that cut the Duke lead to 41-35. But they couldn’t keep the momentum when Krzyzewski called a 30-second timeout. After the stoppage in play, Singler responded with a tough jumper in the paint that kept Virginia Tech at bay.
The pace of play stagnated in the second half as a result of a constant stream of whistles from the referees. The officials called 25 fouls in the final period, and the Blue Devils picked up their seventh team foul with over 10 minutes remaining in the game.
The Hokies failed to capitalize on the bonus, however. With Allen and Davila largely stymied down low, shooting guard Malcolm Delaney needed to pick up the slack. Delaney finished with 19 points, but that figure belied his poor 4-for-14 shooting, as Smith harassed him throughout the game.
Smith, meanwhile, took advantage of his defender Erick Green on the offensive end. He fed Mason Plumlee for a pair of alley-oop dunks on back-to-back possessions with around eight minutes left in the half, deflating the Hokies for the rest of the contest.
The Blue Devils now have a chance to win their third straight conference tournament championship when they take on North Carolina Sunday. Their injured leader, Smith, will lead by example.
“Nolan’s a warrior for us,” Kelly said. “After a performance that really anybody would consider…subpar, to mentally come back and play the way he did [Saturday]—not many players in college basketball can do that.”