Even with Duke trailing nearly the entire game, Mason Plumlee looked like a man unwilling to lose. The forward recorded a double-double less than five minutes into the second half, but the Blue Devils were still losing, unable to break through with their senior co-captain looking as if he were playing one-against-five at times.
But thanks to Rasheed Sulaimon and Ryan Kelly emerging as his perfect sidekicks, Duke’s senior superhero walked off the court a man who maintained his team’s undefeated record with a third win against a top-five opponent.
The No. 2 Blue Devils (7-0) rallied to defeat No. 4 Ohio State (4-1) 73-68 at Cameron Indoor Stadium Wednesday night with Plumlee recording 21 points and 17 rebounds in a highlight-filled but grueling 39 minutes of action.
“He’s one of the best players in the country. His performance tonight was magnificent,” Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “My guys are unbelievable to win this game.”
Even with Duke failing to generate any offensive mojo in the first half, scoring just 23 points in the period on 6-of-20 shooting, Plumlee was able to send the crowd into a frenzy on multiple occasions. None was more impressive and emblematic of his man-on-a-mission mentality than a one-handed alley-oop he slammed home off a Quinn Cook pass that appeared to be off target.
The dish initially looked as if it would be out of Plumlee’s grasp, but he threw it down with authority, and in the process tied Duke’s all-time dunk record, a mark he surpassed by the end of evening.
“I was happy Quinn threw it. He trusted me and I upheld my end,” Plumlee said. “I told him, ‘We can’t be on Sportscenter, unless, you got to make it look like I can’t get it. If I get it, we’ll get on Top 10.’”
Kelly, along with Plumlee, was one of two Duke players who was effective offensively in the first half. The senior from Raleigh, however, regularly found himself on the bench with foul trouble and defensive struggles, initially starting the game against Ohio State star Deshaun Thomas, who recorded eight early points. Thomas, who averaged 24.0 points per game entering the contest, finished with a season-low 16.
Kelly made his mark on the game in the second half, though, beginning with a 3-pointer to tie the game at 53 with 6:15 left, ending a run of 28:03 where the Buckeyes held the lead.
On Duke’s next possession, Kelly nailed another trey to give the Blue Devils a lead they never relinquished.
“It was a huge set of plays. A big part of that was our crowd tonight,” Kelly said. “That was as good as Cameron has been in a long time.”
Sulaimon struggled in the first half against the Buckeyes’ lengthy perimeter, finding himself on the bench at various points and failing to record a point, rebound or assist. But he came alive in the second half, scoring all 17 of his points in that span.
“For a freshman, I thought he got knocked back. At halftime, he responded,” Krzyzewski said. “He had 17 points in the second half and gave us a verve, gave us a real verve.”
But Duke’s first-half struggles extended beyond the backcourt as it was outrebounded 22-16 in the period despite Plumlee’s eight early rebounds. Playing their fourth game in seven days after the Battle 4 Atlantis in the Bahamas, the Blue Devils were initially sluggish. Plumlee and Kelly scored 17 of Duke’s 22 first-half points with Seth Curry, Quinn Cook and Sulaimoin going a combined 1-of-11 from the field in the first 20 minutes. Entering halftime, Duke trailed 31-23, with Ohio State extending its lead to a game-high 10 points with the first score after the break.
“We didn’t think we had played well,” Kelly said. “Things could have been a lot worse, and they weren’t. We had to fight harder, and if we fought harder and just played with a reckless abandon we believed we could win.”
Clearly nursing a lingering leg injury, Curry remained ineffective for much of the game, while Sulaimon lit up the scoreboard and Cook orchestrated an offense that doubled its first-half output in the final 20 minutes.
Cook finished with 12 points, six rebounds and eight assists, but was more important as an emotional leader. He aggressively battled Ohio State’s point guard Aaron Craft on defense. The junior floor general played his worst game of the season with 11 points and just one assist, going 3-of-15 from the field.
“Quinn is playing at a high level right now,” Buckeye head coach Thad Matta said. “He’s a great kid. I know him, and I’m happy as heck for him, though I didn’t want him to play that well tonight. His pressure got a bit to [Craft].”
The sophomore floor general spent all but five seconds on the court and pushed the pace of the offense in the second half, giving the unit a needed jolt of life. The fan atmosphere marked a crucial difference between last year’s edition of the ACC/Big Ten Challenge when the Blue Devils lost 85-63 to the Buckeyes in Columbus, Ohio.
And nobody fed off that energy more than Plumlee, whose name the Cameron Crazies chanted from the bleachers after the game was finished.
“I think when our fans left today, they left and said, ‘We won.’ That’s when Cameron is great,” Krzyzewski said. “Well maybe that should be something we do. Like Saturday [against Delaware] would be a heck of a thing, for everybody to come to the club again. Club Cameron.”