PROVIDENCE, R.I.—Things were looking bleak—and awfully familiar—for Duke.
The Blue Devils trailed 13th-seeded UNC-Wilmington 43-40 at halftime, trying to avoid a third Round of 64 exit in the past five seasons.
But a 10-0 run early in the second half and a career day for center Marshall Plumlee made sure Duke would live to fight another day.
“As the game went on, we started playing as the free and confident team we’ve been all year,” sophomore Grayson Allen said. “That’s what we need to do. We can’t be thinking about losing and what-ifs.”
Fourth-seeded Duke defeated the Seahawks 93-85 in the first round of the NCAA tournament Thursday afternoon at the Dunkin' Donuts Center. Plumlee scored a career-high 23 points—including eight dunks—on 9-of-10 shooting and added eight rebounds, giving the Blue Devils point-blank scoring opportunities to ward off UNC-Wilmington.
Freshman Brandon Ingram shouldered the offensive load in the first half, contributing 20 points and nine rebounds in his NCAA tournament debut, and sophomore Grayson Allen and junior captain Matt Jones also reached double-figures.
“We just were not who we’ve been most of the year, but in the second half we were very good,” Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “I mean really good, and we had to be because they were good throughout.”
Duke (24-10) survived in large part by getting to the charity stripe against a Seahawk squad notorious for committing fouls. The Blue Devils went 31-for-43 from the free-throw line, with Allen notching 15 of his 23 points on free throws to compensate for a 4-for-12 shooting day.
The Seahawks (25-8) poured in six 3-pointers in the first half and shot 51.5 percent from the floor, pulling ahead as Duke missed seven of its last 10 shots in the half's final 7:30. Chris Flemmings poured in 13 of his 18 points before halftime and combined with Craig Ponder and Denzel Ingram to score 33 of UNC-Wilmington's 43 first-half points.
Duke trailed 41-34 late in the period but got 3-pointers from Ingram and freshman Luke Kennard on its last two possessions to close within three heading into the locker room.
“They’re really good. We beat a really good team today and a team that believed they were going to win," Krzyzewski said. "I thought they played harder and more together than us in the first half… We just were not who we’ve been most of the year.”
An entirely different Blue Devil squad stepped out on the court for the second half. An emphatic block from Plumlee—who discarded the mask he had sported since breaking his nose against N.C. State in the second round of the ACC tournament—set the tone for the half and sparked a 10-0 run for Duke through the first five minutes of the second period. The Warsaw, Ind., native capped off that game-saving stretch with a massive dunk at 13:16 to give the Blue Devils a 12-point lead—their largest of the contest.
With the Seahawks keying on stopping Ingram and Allen—who still combined for 43 points and 19 rebounds—the door opened for Plumlee, who often stood alone under the basket to finish drop-off passes and lobs with authority.
“I had to play with some really talented guards who draw a lot of attention , and when they draw that kind of attention it leaves openings," Plumlee said. "Throughout the year I’ve gotten better at playing off them. The chemistry has grown."
UNC-Wilmington could not find an answer, enduring a 4:22 minute scoring drought during that stretch as its first-half momentum evaporated. Both Devontae Cacok and C.J. Gettys fouled out early, and four Seahawk turnovers and nine fouls in the first 10 minutes only stretched the Duke lead.
A series of drives from guard C.J. Bryce cut the Duke lead to five with 4:42 to go, but the Blue Devils responded with a pair of dunks from Plumlee to push it back to nine.
“I thought as hard as they played, we played as hard in that second half, and that was the difference in the game,” Krzyzewski said. “Marshall was spectacular in the second half and he was playing so hard that he had to sub out a few times.... Our most important player is Marshall. When he plays well, we have a chance.”
Plumlee fouled out with just more than two minutes remaining and with Duke leading by eight, and UNC Wilmington made one last push. Thornton answered with an acrobatic layup through contact, but he could not sink the free throw. UNC Wilmington's Denzel Ingram responded with a quick 3-pointer to cut Duke's lead to five once again with five minutes remaining, but a Chase Jeter block turned away the Seahawks one final time, and the Blue Devils fittingly closed out the win at the free throw line.
Duke will play 12th-seeded Yale Saturday for the right to go to the Sweet 16, after the Bulldogs upset fifth-seeded Baylor 79-75 Thursday. The Blue Devils beat Yale 80-61 Nov. 25 at Cameron Indoor Stadium, but that game featured nine points and 12 rebounds from Amile Jefferson, who is out for the season with a fractured foot.
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