(Click on the current photograph to view a larger version.)
CHARLOTTE-Someone had to step up for Duke Saturday night.
But in a show of just how much the No.7 Blue Devils have grown since their uncharacteristic first-round ousting from the ACC Tournament only a year ago, someone didn't just step up for Duke against seventh-seeded Georgia Tech. Everyone did.
A mere 30 seconds after tip in the Bobcats Arena, ACC Freshman of the Year Kyle Singler was relegated to the bench with two fouls, and the No. 2 seed faced its first challenge of the early postseason. The Blue Devils, however, answered with a vengeance, shooting a smoldering 57.1 percent from the field in the first half en route to an 82-70 win over the Yellow Jackets. Five Duke players registered in double-digits on the evening, led by senior captain DeMarus Nelson and sophomore sixth man Jon Scheyer, who put up 17 and 18 points, respectively.
"I'd rather not have that test," head coach Mike Krzyzewski said of Singler's early foul trouble. "But that can happen at anytime. He shouldn't be a freshman now, because he's played 30 games, but it just wasn't his game tonight."
Despite playing only three minutes in the first half and recording his third-lowest points total of the season, Singler came up with what Krzyzewski called the play of the game.
After trailing by as many as 20 in the first half and 15 at intermission, Georgia Tech (15-16) came crawling back within two points on a Lewis Clinch jumper at the 13:38 mark in the second. Less than a minute later, however, Singler tipped the ball at midcourt, stripping it from Georgia Tech senior Jeremis Smith, and advanced it to Duke's own captain, who drained a three from the corner to put his team up six. That shot sparked a 17-6 Blue Devil run, and Duke (27-4) would not let its opponent any closer to the lead.
"It was a big-time play and couldn't have come at a bigger time of the game for us," Nelson said of Singler's steal. "[The Yellow Jackets] had cut the lead to two, and he just made a play for the ball... got the steal. I floated to the corner and called for it, and just took the shot with confidence."
Nelson displayed nothing but confidence in the second period. The captain-whom Krzyzewski said was the most disappointed player coming out of Senior Night he has ever coached-went on a tear after halftime, scoring 12 of his 17 points for the game. The senior also paired that scoring burst with a career-high seven assists and game-leading nine rebounds.
Also charged primarily with defending the Yellow Jackets' most versatile scorer, Anthony Morrow, Nelson held the senior slasher to only 12 points.
"He was just being a senior," Georgia Tech's Smith said. "He knew this was his last ACC Tournament, just like [Morrow] and myself. He just knew he had to turn to his team and be a senior and a captain out there like he is."
Nelson was not without help, however, in reshifting the momentum Duke's way. Junior Greg Paulus also nailed a 3-pointer in that pivotal stretch in the second half that brought the Blue Devils' lead back to 10-one of three the point guard converted on the night. Putting up 13 points, which included a 3-for-6 effort from behind the arc, Paulus hit the big shots when Duke needed them.
Perhaps most telling of Duke's performance in its opening game of the tournament, though, was that eight players logged double-digit minutes. Although Krzyzewski said it was the team's gameplan to play a deeper rotation heading into the contest, the team was forced to go to that option much earlier than it expected. In particular, the coach said he was impressed with the play of Brian Zoubek, who could prove to be an even bigger factor as the Blue Devils advance further in the tournament and with a potential title matchup with No. 1 North Carolina.
"Brian has really practiced well," Krzyzewski said. "We wish he were here the whole year. You wonder where he would at be right now. But we have a lot of confidence in Brian. I thought [the run in the first half] was all him, really, and the guys having confidence in him."
With the win, Duke advanced to the conference tournament semifinals, and will play the winner of the Boston College/Clemson nightcap tomorrow at 4 p.m.
Get The Chronicle straight to your inbox
Signup for our weekly newsletter. Cancel at any time.