In the first half of Saturday's contest against Miami, the No. 3 Blue Devils went 10-of-21 from the free-throw line, and senior Demarcus Nelson had scored just two points.
But led by its captain and with increased efficiency from the line, Duke exploded for 50 points over the next 20 minutes and cruised to an 88-73 trouncing of the Hurricanes.
"This kid's having one of the best years of any of the seniors I've coached," head coach Mike Krzyzewski said of Nelson. "He hasn't had a bad game, and in the conference, they've all been great games-not just good ones. I'm using him everywhere, offense and defense. He's been a rock. There's no more valuable player for us than him. It's not even close."
After a half in which Duke went over 16 minutes without a 2-point bucket and shot 31.3 percent from the field, the Blue Devils were looking for a spark coming out of the break.
Nelson personally assumed the burden, looking unstoppable in the first five minutes of the second period and recording 10 points in that short time span.
"[I was] just going out there and trying to set the tone for us offensively and get guys going," Nelson said. "It was just the flow of the game where I was able to get some good looks. My teammates found me in transition and just turned some defense into offense."
But Nelson, a Wooden Award Finalist, did more than take open shots and make easy baskets in transition. He made opportunities for himself, using his overpowering athleticism to create turnovers on defense and dominate near the basket on offense.
His highlight-reel episode included an assist to Singler for a three, two steals that he finished for fast break points and two sensational reverse layups.
Nelson's rally gave Duke the breath of life it was desperately searching for and gave the Blue Devils a 14-point advantage- double the lead they held at the half-and the team never looked back.
The breakout beginning the period did not surprise Krzyzewski, however, who was pleased with his team's first-half play despite the gaps in the boxscore.
"I actually thought that was the best first half we've played in the last three games, it just didn't show in the score," Krzyzewski said.
The calm approach worked-and not just for Nelson.
The Blue Devils went 16-of-19 from the charity stripe in the second. Despite the size disadvantage, Duke continued to drive to the basket, amassing an incredible 40 foul shots for the game. Miami only took 21 trips to the line.
Duke stepped up its game on the open court as well. Kyle Singler went 3-for-4 from the floor after halftime, Lance Thomas hit 2-of-3 and Nelson, who recorded 19 of his 21 points in the second half, went 6-for-9 after the break.
"We wanted to come out and continue to do the things we were doing defensively and just play a little bit looser on offense," Nelson said. "We were putting too much pressure on each and every shot. That's what Coach stressed to us at halftime-just to go out there and take our shots. Make or miss, just take the shots because those are the shots we practice everyday."
There is no denying that Duke has struggled in the opening halves of its last few contests-the Blue Devils trailed headng into the second half in their two previous games-but the team has still managed to beat eight of its last nine opponents by double digits. If the Blue Devils can continue to play through some adversity and produce game-changing performances like Nelson did Saturday, this team has a chance to go a long way.
"They're such a good group. They will work hard. They are very unselfish. They're not afraid. and they don't want to lose," Krzyzewski said. "We have lost and we'll probably lose [again]. but it won't be because they don't want to win and they won't fight together to make that happen.. We're not a great team, but we're a very good team that wants to do all those intangibles, and I don't know what more you can ask."
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