ATLANTA, Ga. — There was no ceremony around Quinn Cook’s first start in a Duke uniform. No special meeting with the coaching staff, no announcement in front of the team. The only sign for Cook came in practice after the team’s loss against Temple, when head coach Mike Krzyzewski assigned Cook to practice with the rest of the starters on the “white” team.
“He just said, ‘Quinn, go white,’” Cook said. And there was no further indication until Cook walked into the locker room before Saturday’s contest against Georgia Tech and saw his name on the dry erase board that listed the day’s lineup.
With 10 points and five assists, the freshman led No. 3 Duke (13-2, 1-0 in the ACC) to a 81-74 win over the Yellow Jackets (7-8, 0-1 in the ACC) at Philips Arena. The win was Duke’s first true road victory after losses at Ohio State and Temple, since games in Maui and at Madison Square Garden were neutral-site contests.
Cook set the tone from the start, with an aggressive drive and lay-up on the game’s first possession.
“I’m not going to lie. I was nervous—more nervous than other games,” Cook said. But after that first shot, he said, “all the butterflies went away.”
In his 27 minutes of play—a career high—he showed off a broad range of skills, including a crossover and stepback jumper from the elbow, and a nifty behind-the-head dish to a cutting Austin Rivers.
“I thought he gave us a great verve,” Krzyzewski said.
Cook’s breakout could hardly have come at a better time for Krzyzewski, who has seen his early-season backcourt of Seth Curry, Rivers and Andre Dawkins struggle of late. That trio combined to shoot just 9-for-27 against Georgia Tech. Curry, the team’s leading returning scorer, reached double-digit scoring for just the third time in his last nine games, but it took him 12 shots to accumulate his 15 points. Dawkins’ poor performance makes him 4-for-21 from the field in his last four contests, and Rivers has made just 9 of 29 shots in his last three games.
Rivers struggled on the defensive end as well, as he covered Yellow Jacket guard Glen Rice, Jr.—who led Georgia Tech with 28 points and 8 rebounds—for much of the game.
Rice’s scoring came at a critical time, as he scored 11 points during a five minute-long 15-6 run that brought the Yellow Jackets within two with 4:18 on the clock. With Duke backing off the full-court defensive pressure it had used for much of the first half, Georgia Tech was able to get into a rhythm in its half-court sets. Although the Yellow Jacket offense rarely managed to get to the rim, they succeeded by making jumpshots, which were poorly contested by the Blue Devils.
Georgia Tech struggled, though, on its uncontested shots, missing four critical free throws down the stretch—two by Rice and two by point guard Mfon Udofia. After a pair of missed free throws by Rivers with 3:26 to play, Udofia had a chance to tie the game at 68 with his shots, but Rivers answered his pair of bricks with a steal and to give Duke a four-point lead. Rice then missed his foul shots, and an alley-oop off the backboard from Curry to Mason Plumlee put the Blue Devils up by six as the clock wound under a minute.
The Yellow Jackets kept up their scoring efforts as the clock ticked down, but Kelly made all eight of his free throws in the final minute to keep the game out of Georgia Tech’s reach.
“Our best play was to say, ‘Mason, if they score get it into Ryan,’” Krzyzewski said. “That’s the best play I called all day.”
With the guards scoring inconsistently, Kelly led the frontcourt in providing much of the offensive production from the interior, especially in the first half. Ryan Kelly dropped 21 points, including all 14 of his free throws, and Miles and Mason Plumlee combined for 15 points, 11 boards and three blocks.
Led by the forwards’ scoring and Cook’s distributing ability, Duke came out of the gate on fire from the floor, making 12 of its first 17 shots to build a 32-14 lead with eight minutes to go in the half. Cook and Kelly both showed off dribble-drive ability as the Blue Devils attacked the rim and shared the ball, with eight assists on their first 12 field goals.
But the hot shooting did not last. Duke made just one field goal before halftime, and Georgia Tech answered the Duke scoring drought with a run of its own. After struggling early from the field, the Yellow Jackets sank nine of 18 shots after falling behind 22-8. Georgia Tech’s hot shooting benefited from an excellent performance on the boards, where they rebounded more of their misses than Duke did in the first half, with 10 offensive rebounds to Duke’s nine defensive boards. The Yellow Jackets finished with a plus-12 rebounding margin as coaches and players alike said that Duke’s streaky shooting affected their performance on defense.
“We had a chance to go 20 to 25 up,” Krzyzewski said. “We had open looks. And when we didn’t knock those open looks down, I thought we showed a lack of experience, in that I think we came down on the defensive end still thinking about the wide-open shot we missed. And all of a sudden, there’s Glen Rice and he’s open.”
But while Duke had a chance for a bigger victory over a struggling Georgia Tech squad, Krzyzewski made it clear that he’s pleased with his team’s progress.
“I think we’re in constant search of who we are individually,” Krzyzewski said. “You don’t have a [Jon] Scheyer, a Nolan Smith, a [Kyle] Singler. Those guys, who—they already know who they are. So you have that there in the locker room and on the court all the time. This team doesn’t have that, and that’s why it’s evolving.... To win a game like that down the stretch is very important for the development of our kids.”
Get The Chronicle straight to your inbox
Signup for our weekly newsletter. Cancel at any time.