With just more than a minute left in Sunday night's win over Maryland, Duke's lead was down to three. As the Blue Devils milked the shot clock, the Terrapins had sliced their deficit from nine with consecutive 3-pointers.
One more bucket would kill Maryland's momentum and likely seal the game for Duke. Naturally, the Blue Devils looked to DeMarcus Nelson, the senior captain who has earned that mantle with his heady play so far during the ACC season.
Nelson took the ball at the top of the key, dribbled off Kyle Singler's pick and drove down the left side of the lane to the basket, where he somehow managed to muscle the ball into the hoop. The Blue Devils were up by five with 1:01 to go. The game was over.
When head coach Mike Krzyzewski named Nelson Duke's sole captain at the beginning of the season, I was one of the Blue Devil fans who wondered if the team's lone senior was ready to take-and make-shots like that. Last year, if you recall, Nelson, Josh McRoberts and Greg Paulus shared Duke's captaincy and were similarly expected to share the end-of-game responsibilities.
We all know how that worked out, but still it seemed a little strange at the time to put all the weight on Nelson's shoulders. I guess it's a good thing fans like me are not the ones coaching the Blue Devils.
At the beginning of last season, Krzyzewski emphasized to reporters that Nelson's first two years at Duke had been marred by injuries and that Blue Devil fans had yet to really appreciate his talents outside of a few select examples, like his first two home games against North Carolina. Coach K was right to some extent, as Nelson led Duke in scoring with 14.1 points per game and chipped in 5.4 rebounds, too.
But it was not until ACC play began this year that Nelson emerged as the leader Duke had hoped for when he arrived as a freshman as California's all-time high school scoring leader. In five conference games, Nelson is averaging 17.6 points per game, good for sixth in the conference. He's also shooting 56 percent and leading the Blue Devils in steals and 3-point percentage, all the while averaging a team-high 34 minutes a game. All of those statistics are up from the non-conference slate.
But the numbers do not tell the whole story of just how important Nelson has become as of late. The once-reserved wing has also become Duke's emotional leader. During Thursday night's win over Virginia Tech in a testy atmosphere in Cassell Coliseum, Nelson drove the ball into the lane before sustaining a hard foul from the Hokies' Deron Washington. Nelson bounced up from the ground and started jawing back at Washington, whose behavior toward the Blue Devils all game bordered on downright dangerous.
The technical foul Nelson picked up for his words meant he had to leave the game, but that was OK, because Duke was up 75-58 at the time. The coaches might have been upset with Nelson for losing his cool-and Nelson apologized for his actions after the game-but the most important point was that he stood up for his teammates. That's what captains do.
All year long, but especially recently, Nelson has been exhibiting the traits of a Duke captain. It was most on display during the Maryland game, when his two buckets in the first minute of the second half helped Duke get right back into the game, and his 19 second-half points carried the team to a meaningful victory in a tough road environment.
Duke fans have been waiting four years since Nelson arrived, and two seasons since he took over the role as the team's eldest member, for him to deliver on his potential. In the preseason, before Nelson helped lead Duke to a championship in Maui and five straight wins to open up the team's ACC schedule, Krzyzewski said that the team's captaincy had been "diluted" with the shared responsibility last season.
That no longer appears to be a problem.
In their lone captain, the Blue Devils have found the leader they so badly needed to once again become one of the nation's most feared teams.
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