CHICAGO—Despite a standout performance from Marshall Plumlee and the Duke veterans, it was the Blue Devils, not their shots, that fell Tuesday.
No. 2 Kentucky dispatched No. 5 Duke 74-63 Tuesday at the United Center in the opener of the Champions Classic. The Wildcats were led by a dominant performance from guard Tyler Ulis, who finished the game with 18 points, six assists and four rebounds. The victory marked Wildcat head coach John Calipari's first career victory against the Blue Devils.
“We weren’t who we should be tonight, from the start,” Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “I didn’t feel like our team was here tonight like it needed to be, and Marshall kept us in.”
Heading into Tuesday's contest, much of the talk surrounding the game concerned the play of Duke's and Kentucky's vaunted freshmen and how the emergence of Duke sophomore Grayson Allen as a bona fide star would translate against the length of the Wildcats (3-0). But despite all the hype, it was the Blue Devil veterans that came to Duke's rescue through the first 20 minutes.
After falling behind 7-2 in the early going, the Blue Devils (2-1) turned to their muscle in the paint. Through the first 4:16, Plumlee poured in Duke's first nine points and grabbed five rebounds, all from under the basket, to put his team back in the game. The Warsaw, Ind., native headed to the locker room with 11 points, eight rebounds and five blocks to lead Duke in the opening frame and collected his second career double-double by the time the night was over.
“The four guys coming back [for us] were really good, and they are good and they’re better now,” Krzyzewski said. “When you’re put in a position when you’re 'the man,' it’s different. It’s different. And you’ve got to learn to do that, and hopefully we’ll be able to do that.”
Plumlee combined with Matt Jones and Amile Jefferson to score 26 of the Blue Devils' 31 first-half points. But their success was short-lived.
Kentucky opened the second half by cleaning up on the glass—preventing Plumlee from finding more scoring opportunities—and playing lockdown defense, forcing four turnovers in the first four minutes of play. Forward Marcus Lee and guard Jamal Murray scored four points apiece during the Wildcats' opening run, which resulted in a 47-36 Kentucky lead with 15:18 remaining in the contest.
The Wildcat guards consistently penetrated the lane, creating easy dump passes for the Kentucky frontcourt to finish at the rim. Kentucky scored all eight of its second-half opening baskets on either layups or dunks to build up a double-digit lead. Part of the reason for the abundance of easy looks stemmed from the fact that the Blue Devils failed to stop Kentucky in transition, as the Wildcats often leaked out on the break. Kentucky outscored Duke 18-4 in fast-break points, and after the fast start for Duke underneath, Kentucky commanded the paint, outscoring the Blue Devils 48-30 down low.
Although it was not initially apparent in the first half, Kentucky, unlike Duke, depended on a plethora of scoring options throughout the game, with four Wildcats ending the game in double-figures. Ulis and Murray spread the wealth all evening, combining for 11 assists, and Ulis—a sophomore who returned to Lexington while most of his classmates departed for the NBA—played a turnover-free 40 minutes.
“We’re going to be trouble in a fast-paced game like that,” Ulis said. “We understand that we have a different kind of game and can do a lot of great things, so we play well off each other.”
On the other side of the floor, nothing seemed to work offensively for Duke's guards. Allen struggled mightily on the offensive end all evening, running into the length of Lee, freshman Skal Labissiere and other Wildcats when he tried to attack the rim. The sophomore entered the game averaging 27.0 points per contest after a blistering opening weekend in Durham but shot 0-for-9 in the first half.
Allen finally saw the ball go through the basket when he nailed a corner 3-pointer with 12:08 remaining—closing the gap to 53-45—though by that time, the Wildcats' well-oiled machine was already up-and-running and well out in front.
“[Kentucky] is a very athletic and physical team,” Allen said. “The bigs were a lot taller than the teams we played so far. They did a great job just rotating over, the guards did a great job pressuring the ball. They played a great team defensive game today. [Ulis] is a great point guard. He’s real steady out there.”
The Blue Devil rookies did not fare much better, shooting 4-of-18 from the field. Freshman Brandon Ingram managed four points on 1-of-6 shooting and battled foul trouble much of the night, and sharp-shooter Luke Kennard was 0-of-3 from downtown and 0-of-5 overall.
“We really made an emphasis on stopping the ball and finding 3-point shooters and limiting their shots—they all can shoot and spread the floor, too, “Murray said. “We tried to stop them in transition and make them go over our defense.”
Jones and Jefferson scored 16 points apiece for Duke. Jefferson also added 15 rebounds for his third straight double-double to begin the year.
Duke will have a two-day break before heading to Madison Square Garden in New York to take on Virginia Commonwealth Friday at 7:30 p.m. as part of the 2K Classic benefiting Wounded Warriors Project.
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