ATLANTA—When Mason Plumlee fouled out with 35 seconds left, he bowed his head but headed to the bench without regret. On the Blue Devils’ next possession, Seth Curry hit two free throws to extend Duke’s lead to eight. Twenty-one seconds later, Ryan Kelly capped off Duke’s scoring with a two-handed slam.
Facing a Kentucky squad led by a quartet of freshmen, Duke’s seniors combined for 51 points—and the team’s first 28 points of the game—as the No. 9 Blue Devils beat the No. 3 Wildcats 75-68 in the Champions Classic at the Georgia Dome.
Curry finished with a game-high 23 points, 14 of which came in the second half, after Plumlee scored 14 of his 18 points in the first half.
“I think it was good, especially in the end-of game situation, having guys like myself, Ryan and Seth who have been in those,” Plumlee said. “Each possession becomes that much more important, so I think we had guys on the floor that understood the importance of a possession.”
Kentucky (1-1) did not hold a lead during the entire second half, with Duke (2-0) holding a 12-point lead with 6:30 to play after a Curry jump shot. Wildcat freshman Alex Poythress, however, threw down a put-back slam to reduce the margin to 10.
That sparked a run with Kentucky rallying to make the score 64-61 with less than four minutes to play. But Curry made two free throws to extend the lead to five. The Blue Devils did not score in the 4:26 between Curry’s points.
“We just said, it’s a three-minute ballgame. Let’s win a three-minute ballgame, and we did,” Duke basketball head coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “Seth was terrific. I think he was the difference maker in the game…. I think he took control of the game. We wanted the ball in his hands, and he made veteran, tough plays down the stretch.”
Poythress responded with a jumper on the next sequence, but another Curry bucket ensured that the Wildcats never came within a possession of tying the game for the rest of the way.
In the final 2:04, the Blue Devils made 7-of-8 free throws. Curry went 6-of-6 from the free throw line, and Plumlee—who typically struggles from the charity stripe—nailed all four of his attempts.
“I personally want to have the ball in my hands as much as possible to go up there and knock them down,” Curry said.
Rasheed Sulaimon gave the three seniors a boost in the final 20 minutes, after the freshman shot 0-for-7 in the first half. Sulaimon hit three 3-pointers in the second half—two of them coming in a critical stretch with Plumlee on the bench after picking up his fourth foul with 16:04 to go. Sulaimon led Duke with six rebounds and five assists.
When Plumlee went to the bench after the foul call, the Blue Devils extended their lead to double digits for the first time.
Throughout the game, Plumlee fought a physical battle in the paint with Wildcat Nerlens Noel, who is regarded as the top freshman in the nation. Despite Plumlee picking up two early fouls that clearly frustrated him, he shot 5-of-6 from the field in the first half, guiding Duke to a 33-31 lead at the break.
“Especially when you’re playing a team as talented as Kentucky at every position, you have to get things from tons of areas and different players,” Kelly said. “As seniors we need to be there to lead our team through anything. That’s what got us through a game there like that when you had people in foul trouble and had to play with that.”
Kelly, who finished with 10 points, was most impactful on the defensive end guarding Kentucky sophomore forward Kyle Wiltjer. With Plumlee on the bench at times, Kelly’s defense in the post was thrust into the spotlight, and he responded with three blocked shots, all of which came in the first half.
After recording a team-high 19 points in the team’s season-opening victory against Maryland, Wiltjer scored just five points Tuesday night.
“They took him away. They did a great job of saying, ‘He’s not getting a shot off,’” Kentucky head coach John Calipari said. “He played well against Maryland, shot the ball. Well this team said, ‘He’s not shooting it.’”
Quinn Cook, who did not start for the second consecutive game, also gave the team an early spark, playing 15 of the first 20 minutes while starting point guard Tyler Thornton played just seven. Cook subsequently started the second half in Thornton’s place.
Entering the game with Duke down by four, Cook took advantage of a Kentucky backcourt that was without starting point guard Ryan Harrow, who did not travel to Atlanta due to illness.
Cook orchestrated an offense that combined to turn over the ball just eight times, while recording 16 assists. The Wildcats recorded 13 turnovers and 13 assists.
“I thought he played with assertiveness. He pushed it. He played really good defensively,” Krzyzewski said. “Quinn Cook really gave us a lift. He scored in transition—it was kind of difficult for us to score in the halfcourt in the first half.”
Redshirt freshman Alex Murphy, who did not play in the team’s opener against Georgia State, played two minutes in the first half but did not see the floor for the rest of the game. Junior Josh Hairston played a critical 14 minutes, however, converting two offensive rebounds into baskets in the second half.
This was the first time the Blue Devils defeated a top-three opponent since a Feb. 2008 victory against then-No. 3 North Carolina, while Krzyzewski moved to 5-1 in his career against Kentucky and 2-0 against Calipari-led teams.
And Krzyzewski was able to count on Curry, who turned in a big-game performance reminiscent of his 22-point performance in Feb. 2011 in a Duke win against North Carolina.
“I’m proud of you,” Krzyzewski said, patting Curry on the back. “I’m glad you came to Duke.”