This won’t go down as one of the gems of the Duke-North Carolina rivalry. It featured 30 total turnovers, 41 percent shooting from the floor, and nearly the entire Duke starting lineup in foul trouble.
Despite all of that, the No. 2 Blue Devils erased a 10-point first-half deficit to outlast North Carolina, 73-68, Wednesday night at Cameron Indoor in Durham, N.C.
Duke has continued to adapt as Ryan Kelly sits out with injury, but it wasn’t something flashy that won this game. Ultimately, 17-of-20 shooting from the free throw line, a renewed defensive energy in the second half, and the willingness to share the basketball helped Duke to a victory Wednesday.
Without Kelly, it is crucial that Mason Plumlee works to be assertive and effective inside, but his teammates need to help him. He finally worked to get closer to the basket as the game progressed and was able to impose his will on North Carolina forward James Michael McAdoo. It was exactly what Duke needed.
The Blue Devils had just one assist in the first half, but began to share the ball in the second. Kelly is not there to spread the floor from the power forward position, so it will fall to the guards to do so. Tyler Thornton was 3-of-4 from three-point range, and Seth Curry was quiet until late, but his outside shooting down the stretch was key.
The Blue Devils might not have depth, but they have a solid core of experience. As Wednesday showed, that can be the difference in a close conference game, which means the same for the NCAA tournament.
The means Plumlee and Curry, along with strong point guard play from sophomore Quinn Cook, need to be the engines of a fundamentally sound Duke attack. There won’t be many other opportunities for a 17-turnover game to still end up as a victory. The Blue Devils got one tonight, but more second halves like Wednesday’s will keep Duke as one of the nation’s elite.