Duke wasn’t going to let bad things come in threes.
Florida State had already come to Cameron Indoor and snapped the Blue Devils’ 45-game home win streak on January 21st. Reggie Cameron used his 27 points to power Miami past Duke on that same floor on Feb. 5.
So, staring a 16-point halftime deficit in the face on Thursday night against NC State, 26 points from guard Seth Curry led a dominant second half attack that paralyzed the Wolfpack and let Duke storm back and escape with a 78-73 victory in Durham, N.C.
Curry sprained his ankle early in the game, but returned to lead the Blue Devils.
“It took me a while to get back into the game,” he said. “We have been in this situation before. My team did a great job of not quitting.”
NC State was on the offensive in the first half, using their high-powered transition game to capitalize on a poor shooting effort from Duke.
Through the first 20 minutes, Duke’s backcourt had combined to shoot 4-of-19 from the floor and 1-of-13 from three-point range, while NC State was shooting at a 55% clip and held a +7 rebounding margin.
Then came the storm that the Wolfpack could not weather.
Already having had three players rack up at least two fouls in the first half, NC State registered another four fouls in the first 3 minutes of the second, which fundamentally changed the way coach Mark Gottfried’s team played at both ends of the floor.
In all, three players fouled out, including forward CJ Leslie, who was the athletic engine behind much of the Wolfpack attack in the first half. He finished with 12 points, nine rebounds, and six blocks.
Which brings about the real question: Did Duke win this game or did NC State lose it?
Dave Ommen has NC State as a 12 seed in NBC’s latest NCAA Tournament projections. The one glaring hole in their resume, though, is a signature win. It seemed they were in line for that on Thursday night at Cameron Indoor, before their second half collapse.
The hot shooting they enjoyed in the first half was neutralized by Duke’s pressure defense. Combine that with a better shooting effort from the Blue Devils, which struck at the heart of the Wolfpack’s transition game, and the unfavorable foul situation.
Put that in the momentum-strangling environment of Cameron Indoor, and it looks like Duke won this basketball game.
Credit goes to coach Mike Krzyzewski for adjusting his team’s defense and turning up the pressure for the final 10 minutes of the game, which gave the Blue Devils a crucial +10 turnover margin.
“Our big guys did a great job in the second half rebounding and playing defense,” said Curry after the game. “I could tell early in the game that they were trying to take us off the three point line. We just kept attacking.”
Austin Rivers finished with 16 points on 4-of-13 shooting. He was more of the problem than the solution in the first half, going 0-of-4 and settling for shots on the perimeter.
In the second, he showed why he was Duke’s best dribble penetrator and took better shots, while opening up the lane for kick-outs and 7-of-15 team shooting from beyond the arc in the second half.
The Blue Devils ripped off a 20-3 run to put them up by five with one minute to play. But, it really didn’t get to that point before you could feel the grip of Cameron Indoor tightening around NC State.
The contrast between the first and second halves show the concerns and the praises surrounding Duke, headed into March.
Take a look at the first half: poor rebounding, cold shooting, a perimeter defense full of holes.
And transition to the second: better shooting, defense that can force turnovers, and better shooting from the perimeter.
Which Duke will we see down the stretch?
“We put ourselves in a good position to win this conference,” said Curry. “Now we have to go on the road and get two road wins.”
One of those road games? A rematch with early-season spoiler Florida State on February 23rd.
Daniel Martin is a writer and editor at JohnnyJungle.com, covering St. John’s. You can find him on Twitter:@DanielJMartin_