ATLANTA — In a fight between two talented heavyweights, winning requires more than just punching. It requires taking punches as well, and Duke demonstrated Tuesday night that it understands this principle.
In a physical 75-68 win against Kentucky at the Georgia Dome, the No. 3 Wildcats landed a heavy blow when star senior center Mason Plumlee picked up his fourth foul with 16:04 left in the game and the Blue Devils leading by six. But with the help of junior forward Josh Hairston, Duke not only absorbed the blow, but also stung Kentucky with a counterattack.
“This is definitely my best game here at Duke, in my career,” Hairston said. “I just wanted to bring energy, toughness, fight, and I think that’s what I did.”
Leading all scorers with 16 points at the time, Plumlee was forced to the bench, also leaving Duke without its primary defensive presence against Kentucky freshman phenom Nerlens Noel.
Plumlee had led the Blue Devils with his intangibles, showing a demonstrative side that was seen only in flashes last season. He demanded the ball loudly in the post, and generally looked eager to play a physical game against a hyped Noel.
“Early on I felt like I could score, and then they started doubling me,” said Plumlee, who added three assists and five rebounds to his 18-point scoring effort. “And when they double, it’s only going to open other guys up. I had some turnovers, but besides the turnovers, I felt something good was going to happen every time.”
With Plumlee sidelined, Duke basketball head coach Mike Krzyzewski turned to the 6-foot-7 Hairston against the 6-foot-10 Noel, and the Wildcats immediately responded by inserting 7-foot Willie Cauley-Stein into the game alongside Noel. With the Blue Devils reeling, the Wildcats saw their chance to land a few more punches.
“I felt we had some chances to get up and down,” Noel said.
On the first Kentucky possession following Plumlee’s departure, 6-foot-8 Wildcat forward Alex Poythress rebounded a missed 3-pointer over 6-foot-1 Tyler Thornton and slammed it home to pull Kentucky back within four. But Hairston was not about to let his team hit the mat.
“I know my team needed me on defense, to play physical, to try and guard Nerlens Noel,” Hairston said. “[Noel is] a great player and he hit some tough shots, but I just wanted to make him work for everything.”
Noel—who has been touted for years for his outstanding shot-blocking ability—aggressively pursued the opportunity to block shots in the lane, and his willingness to attack penetrating guards left the offensive glass open. Hairston pulled down two offensive rebounds and put them back in, keying a 12-6 Duke run with Plumlee on the bench.
“When I got into the lane, I knew Noel would try and block shots,” senior guard Seth Curry said. “So I was just trying to get it on the rim. And Josh did a good job cleaning up a few times for me.”
Keeping the Wildcats at arm’s length during Plumlee’s absence was crucial, knowing that Kentucky head coach John Calipari and his usual elite recruiting class were not going to be knocked out easily either.
“You know they’re going to make a run,” Krzyzewski said. “They’ve won more than 100 games in the last three years. They’re national champions, so they’re going to make a run.”
And as expected, Kentucky came storming back with an 11-2 run of its own that lasted five minutes. Poythress—who made a statement with his aggressive play throughout the game—had two of his five offensive rebounds and scored four of his 20 points during this stretch. Graduate guard Julius Mays scored five straight points to make the score 66-63 with 1:37 to play.
But Duke got its gloves back up and dealt Kentucky a knockout punch in the form of a Seth Curry drive for two points, followed by an Archie Goodwin turnover on the other end. Duke broke a Wildcat press following the turnover, and Noel fouled Thornton near midcourt as he hustled to recover defensively.
With Duke in the bonus, Thornton drilled both halves of a one-and-one with 40 seconds on the clock, forcing Calipari to go into foul-and-hope mode. Curry and Rasheed Sulaimon combined to shoot 3-for-4 from the line on the ensuing Blue Devil possessions, sealing the win for Duke.
But being in a position to count on free-throw shooting at the end had all begun 16 minutes earlier, when Duke showed a maturity and resilience—usually a hallmark of Blue Devil squads—that had frequently eluded it last season. Hairston, the only Duke player to play and not score in the team’s season opener last Friday, landed some of the critical jabs.
“Josh fought like crazy,” senior Ryan Kelly said. “He was unbelievable. He did an unbelievable job fighting Nerlens, all their bigs, rebounding.” Fighting, indeed.