NASSAU, Bahamas—The Atlantis Paradise Island resort was designed as the perfect vacation getaway, not as a basketball facility. As a result, teams are afforded little space to practice or prepare in the midst of the three-day Battle 4 Atlantis tournament.
So, in advance of a semifinal matchup against VCU and its unique trademark defensive pressure, the Duke managers laid out a full court in tape on the floor of a resort ballroom to help the Blue Devils make last-minute preparations to face the Ram full-court press.
The extra practice paid off for Duke, as the Blue Devils handled the VCU pressure and, showing the same poise that had helped them hold off a physical Minnesota squad Thursday afternoon, made crucial free throws down the stretch to earn a hard-fought 67-58 victory at Atlantis’ Imperial Arena.
“I think that was the best game played this season so far, everywhere,” Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “There were no possessions off for any team.”
The Duke attack against the Ram pressure was not always pretty, but it was effective, as the Blue Devils turned the ball over just eight times against a defense that had generated 22 giveaways the night before against Memphis. Early in the game, senior big men Mason Plumlee and Ryan Kelly lent point guard Quinn Cook a significant helping hand in bringing the ball up. In fact, it was Plumlee who dribbled the ball across the half-court line on three of Duke’s first four possessions.
“I thought our kids did a masterful job of handling their pressure,” Krzyzewski said. “[Kelly and Plumlee] were key factors. Ryan inbounded the ball throughout the whole game and never made a turnover. Mason coming up and being an outlet was huge.”
The need to help handle the ball often kept Plumlee and Kelly from establishing position down low, and Kelly drew a particularly tough assignment on defense, where he often matched up against much smaller and quicker guards from a VCU squad that lacked size.
As they got accustomed to unusual responsibilities, the pair of big men combined to shoot just 3-for-9 with seven points and four rebounds in the first half as the Rams outrebounded the Blue Devils 19-15.
The Blue Devil big men made their presence known coming out of the locker room, though, as cracks in the VCU defense began to allow opportunities in transition. Plumlee scored Duke’s first four points of the half and Kelly added five of the next eight as the Blue Devils extended their one-point halftime lead to nine.
“We had spurts where the press was good,” senior VCU guard Darius Theus said. “At times, we slipped up a little bit and lost a little bit of focus, and that can hurt you.”
Cook added assists on Duke’s first four field goals of the second half during what became a 15-3 Duke run. Then, a scoreboard malfunction caused a four-minute stoppage of play, and it was VCU’s turn to make a run. From that stoppage at 15:46 until the end of the game, Duke made just four field goals, including a stretch from 8:18 until the 12-second mark in which it made no shots from the floor.
The Rams drew back to within four after an 18-10 run, but then fatigue set in for both teams. Beginning with a Duke timeout called at 9:19 when Cook got trapped by the VCU press, fatigue reared its head for both squads.
The teams combined for just three field goals over the course of a nine-minute stretch from the 9:19 mark until the game was firmly in Blue Devil hands with 12 seconds to go. Duke shot 1-for-6 with three turnovers during that time, while VCU made just 2-of-15 shots. More crucial than the shooting from the field, though, was the free-throw shooting.
With the score 56-50, forward Juvonte Reddic missed the front end of a one-and-one, and then combined with guards Troy Daniels and Darius Theus to miss six straight Ram free throws. The Blue Devils—again demonstrating their substantial poise—shot 19-for-21 from the line in the second half, including an 11-for-12 performance during the nine-minute period where it managed just one field goal.
All but six of Duke’s 27 free throws during the game were taken by its trio of seniors, including a 9-for-10 performance from Seth Curry and a 7-for-8 showing from a much-improved Plumlee.
“That’s not coaching,” Krzyzewski said of Plumlee’s improvement at the charity stripe. “That’s a player making a commitment.”
Plumlee finished with 17 points and 10 rebounds to lead the Blue Devils in both categories, and Curry finished right behind with 15 points and seven boards despite some early uncertainty about his health.
“I took him out after a minute and a half,” Krzyzewski said. “I didn’t like the way he was running. He just didn’t look like he had the right gait, and then he said he was okay. And obviously he was okay.”
It remains to be seen whether the Blue Devil training staff can nurse Curry through a third game in three days as Duke plays for the Battle 4 Atlantis championship, but in a fast and furious tournament on Paradise Island, sometimes winning requires a little extra tape.
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