Plumlee's big night turns heads against Kentucky

CHICAGO—On a night in which the nearly every facet of the Blue Devil offense graded poorly, it was a refreshing moment when none other than Duke’s biggest player that provided his squad with its biggest boost of the night.

Kentucky, unsurprisingly, came out of the gates strong, jumping out to a 7-2 lead behind the paint-penetrating play of freshmen guards Jamal Murray and Isaiah Briscoe. Although it was early, the Blue Devil guards were visibly outmatched by the trio of Murry, Briscoe and sophomore Tyler Ulis, who scored a game-high 18 points and did not commit a turnover in 40 minutes.

Enter Marshall Plumlee.

With two missed shots by Grayson Allen and Brandon Ingram foreshadowing the rough shooting night to come and Duke trailing by five—it was five and not seven because Plumlee had already collected and put back an Allen miss on the Blue Devils’ first possession—Plumlee went to work in the paint.

First came an Amile Jefferson miss, which Plumlee corralled and, a pump fake or two later, put back up to close the gap to 7-4. Briscoe added a bucket to stretch the lead back to five, but once again, Plumlee answered, this time off a missed layup from Allen. Then, after a turnover from Marcus Lee and a missed shot by Ingram, Plumlee once again out-jumped and out-hustled the Wildcats, snagged the rebound and put it back up, using his pump fake to draw an and-one on Skal Labissiere. And, of course, he made the free throw.

“Marshall scored all his points on offensive rebounds. It wasn’t like they were defending something. We drove the ball and his determination to get rebounds was there,” Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “Marshall kept us in the game, right off the bat.”

Here is Plumlee’s stat line after the opening 4:16: nine points, five rebounds and one block. If we’re going by his career averages—1.5 points, 2.1 rebounds and 0.5 blocks per game—then Tuesday’s opening was a career performance, in line with those from last season against N.C. State—during which he dunked the Wolfpack out of the ACC tournament for a career-high 12 points. The Warsaw, Ind., native tied that mark Tuesday, and also picked up his second career double-double after recording the feat for the first time in the Round of 64 last season against Robert Morris.

Ultimately, the Wildcats came out in the second half and shut down Duke’s secret weapon, putting a body on him after every shot and taking away the opportunities the 7-footer had taken advantage of when left unattended in the opening 20 minutes. But not before Plumlee proved that it’s not just against the mid-major teams that he can provide some oomph down low, taking it to the talented length of Kentucky for much of the first half.

If Duke's guard play doesn’t make some major strides before this weekend's pair of games at Madison Square Garden, then Plumlee’s services may be called upon again.

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