From even before the opening tip, the whole building could tell No. 4 Duke showed up ready to avenge last month’s loss as the team played host to N.C. State at Cameron Indoor Stadium Thursday night.
Leading by more than 20 points for much of the game, Duke pulled out a 98-85 victory as the Wolfpack narrowed the lead to single digits in the final minutes, but the comeback attempt was ultimately too late and the deficit too large.
“That was ACC basketball tonight,” head coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “I don’t know if we can play any harder or better in the first half.”
The Blue Devils (20-2, 7-2) came out fired up thanks in part to a Mason Plumlee pregame speech out by center court just prior to the jump ball, while the Wolfpack (16-7, 5-5) started the game sluggish.
“We wanted to avenge that loss in Raleigh, but more so we just wanted to keep playing well,” senior guard Seth Curry said. “Nobody really had to say much to get us up for this game. Everybody was motivated and everybody came out with a lot of energy from the jump.”
N.C. State’s start was so slow that Tyler Lewis, starting his first career game in place of the injured Lorenzo Brown, was the team’s only scorer for the first 6:53 before C.J. Leslie hit a free throw.
“I’ve been playing with [Lewis] since I was nine years old,” said Quinn Cook, who was not surprised by Lewis’ hot start. “He’s a great player.”
When the Wolfpack awoke from their early game stupor, Duke was already out to a sizeable lead thanks to a 3-point shooting clinic put on by the starting guards Curry, Cook, and Rasheed Sulaimon, who combined to hit 10 shots from deep in the first half.
“Seth was hot,” Plumlee said. “Rasheed hit some really unbelievable shots to start the game, and he really got us going.”
But the second half was a different story as the Blue Devils did not hit a 3-pointer in the final 20 minutes, giving the Wolfpack room for a comeback.
Richard Howell, who did not score until the 6:50 mark in the first half, caught fire to finish with 23 points and nine rebounds.
“Howell, I think of all the players in our league he is the unsung great player in our league,” Krzyzewski said. “Howell can play for anybody. He is such an easy guy to play and he puts up such amazingly efficient numbers, big time numbers.”
As Duke’s 3-point shooting waned, the one constant for Duke over the two halves was the stellar play of Plumlee. When the 3-pointers stopped raining for the Duke backcourt, Plumlee asserted himself under the basket against the powerful Howell, getting the Wolfpack big man in foul woes and limiting his effectiveness down the stretch.
“I always want the ball, and sometimes coach will just get an ‘iso’ for me, and … whether they mean to or not they’re trying not to foul and you can really be even more aggressive,” Plumlee said.
Howell and Leslie both fouled out by the game’s end as Plumlee finished with 30 points on 9-for-11 shooting from the field and 12-for-16 from the free throw line. The performance marked Plumlee’s second 30-point performance in three games.
“I think [Plumlee] is playing as well as anybody in the country,” Krzyzewski said. “His moves inside are really beautiful because he is playing through contact. Instead of taking a hook, he is feeling the defense.”
N.C. State was able to cut Duke’s lead down to nine with four and a half minutes to play, and was able to continue to chip away even after losing Howell to fouls with 3:41 remaining. Leslie picked up right where Howell left off, drawing fouls on Duke and coming up with big stops on the defensive end.
Just as if it were scripted, Mason Plumlee came to the rescue to help seal Duke’s win. Leading by just nine, Plumlee rejected Leslie’s shot at the rim with just over a minute left, leading to Leslie’s fifth and final foul.
“There was a similar play at their place,” Plumlee said. “I think we were down three or something, and he had that same move and converted it…so I was happy to get a stop.”
Scott Wood—who suffered a groin pull in the first half but played through the pain in the second—tried to keep the Wolfpack in the game after both Leslie and Howell fouled out, but it was too great an obstacle for N.C. State to overcome. The Wolfpack narrowed the lead to eight, but never got closer.
“What a performance by both teams,” Krzyzewski said. “We beat a really good basketball team tonight, and I am proud of my guys.”