The two hottest topics leading into Saturday’s game against Miami were the return date of Ryan Kelly and Duke’s chance at revenge against the Hurricanes.
Would the Blue Devils be able to redeem themselves after losing by 27 points to Miami in January? When would Kelly return, and would he be effective when he did?
Kelly answered both of those questions.
Led by Kelly’s 36 points, No. 3 Duke (25-4, 12-4 in the ACC) recovered from a slow start and survived a late rally to beat No. 5 Miami (23-5, 14-2) 79-76 in a game that came down to the final shot.
“We were all privileged to see one of the performances of the ages, I think, by Ryan Kelly,” Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “[It was] probably as good of a performance as any Duke player has had at Cameron.”
Kelly shined in his return to the Blue Devils team that Krzyzewski said had been “surviving” in his absence. The senior single-handedly kept the Blue Devils in the game in the first half, going 5-for-7 from beyond the arc to score 20 points in his 15 minutes of play since injuring his foot Jan. 8 against Clemson.
Kelly’s 19 first-half points matched Duke’s first-half offensive production in the January loss to Miami.
“In the first half he was so unbelievable that it had an impact on our guys,” Krzyzewski said. “In other words, you start watching him, because we haven’t had him for two months.”
Kelly continued to shoot without fear in the second half, hitting twice more from beyond the arc to give him seven 3-pointers, two shy of Duke’s all-time record set by J.J. Redick. Kelly finished 10-of-14 from the field and was 9-of-12 from the free throw line.
“That’s one of those things that just doesn’t happen,” Krzyzewski said of Kelly’s 36 points in just 32 minutes of play. “How did that happen? I don’t know how that happened. But it did, and we won, and… God bless America.”
Both Kelly’s 3-point field goal and overall point totals were season highs for Duke and career highs for him, besting his previous bests of five and 23, respectively. Sophomore Quinn Cook added 15 points and senior Mason Plumlee finished with 12, but the focus never shifted Kelly in his much-awaited return.
“When something special to you is taken away, you want it even more,” Kelly said. “I wanted it more.”
By hitting pretty much anything he looked at, Kelly often forced forward Kenny Kadjii and the rest of the Hurricane defense to chose between leaving him or one of Duke’s guards open.
“With Ryan out there, I don’t think [Miami] gameplanned too well,” Curry said. “When we have ball screens they usually just stay with me, and today they couldn’t do that. Well, they did, but it didn’t work out in their favor.”
Kelly added seven boards to lead the team with a rebounding performance that almost seemed like an afterthought.
Aside from Kelly, the Blue Devils fell victim to Miami’s size on the boards, allowing the Hurricanes to grab 13 offensive rebounds while coming down with just 27 total rebounds themselves. Miami finished with 20 second-chance points in the loss.
“This win is a huge win for us,” head coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “It doesn’t mean everything is okay, but it’s a lot better.”
Guard Shane Larkin led the Hurricanes with 25 points and three assists, utilizing a deceptive floater to convert on drives against Duke’s big men. Larkin has now averaged 17.8 points during his last four games.
“Larkin is a great player—I think the best guard by far in the league,” Krzyzewski said. “He was magical out there.”
Kadjii added 17 points and 10 rebounds in his fifth double-double of the season for Miami, but the senior was held scoreless in the final 16 minutes of play.
Despite Kelly’s scoring explosion, Duke trailed almost the entire first half, going down as much as seven before making it a one-possession game just before halftime. The second half was a different story, however, as other Blue Devils added production on offense.
After going 0-for-6 from beyond the arc in the first half, the non-Kelly portion of the team went 4-for-8 from deep, with Plumlee adding eight points from the post. Behind the more balanced production, the Blue Devils traded buckets with the Hurricanes early, then took and continued to stretch a small advantage, ending up with a 10-point lead with 1:55 left in the game.
But missed free throws and turnovers by Duke allowed Miami to cut the difference to two with 21 seconds left, turning the game into the nail-biter many expected it to be. It took two missed 3-point attempts by Hurricanes on the final possession to seal the victory for the Blue Devils.
“It was a crazy game,” Kelly said. “We could have let go there at the end, but we showed some poise and got the stop that counted.”
The fans—some of whom had been tenting since Tuesday afternoon—chanted Kelly’s name a number of times during the game and provided one of the loudest nights Cameron has seen this year.
“Our kids over the years—that sixth man—have come up with just an amazing spirit and support of our team,” Krzyzewski said. “Tonight they were spectacular too. Not as good as Ryan, but right at that next level.”