ATLANTA — Normally, a team playing without its best player against the No. 3 team in the country would be a disaster. For Duke, a six-minute stretch without Mason Plumlee proved to be crucial, as the Blue Devils built a lead that would last the rest of the way.
No. 9 Dukes 75-68 victory over No.3 Kentucky on Tuesday night was the Blue Devils first win against a nonconference opponent ranked among the top three since 2005.
Its a huge step, and not just because we won, but the way we won, Duke forward Ryan Kelly said. We felt like for 40 minutes, we really played our defense, Duke defense. Obviously this was a team, No. 3 in the country, that is high-level, high-talent, and theyre going to be in the mix at the end of the year. This early, its a huge win for us.
Kentucky didnt fold, rattling off a 9-0 run to cut Dukes lead to 64-61 with 2:04 remaining. Seth Curry scored six points during the final minutes, and Kentucky couldnt close the gap.
Seth (Curry) was our closer tonight, Plumlee said.
The scouting report for Dukes big men was to apply pressure when Kentuckys big men had the ball in their hands. Plumlee took a bit too far when he drew his fourth foul while guarding Nerlens Noel at the top of the key with 16:04 to go.
Plumlees absence wasnt addition by subtraction. Far from it. The senior captain carried Duke while he was in, especially during the first half, when he scored 14 points with 5-of-6 shooting and going a perfect 4-for-4 from the free-throw line. He finished with 18 points. Curry led Duke with 23.
Josh Hairston, a seldom-used reserve during his first two seasons, played the six minutes Plumlee was on the bench. He scored two baskets off offensive rebounds. Defensively, though, he struggled to match up with Noel, but Hairston was effective enough to prevent him from dominating.
I just wanted to go in and be physical, Hairston said. When I got in there, coach just told me to be physical with them, try and push them off the block and try to make them work for everything.
It became apparent early why Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski had preached the importance of his three seniors. Plumlee, Ryan Kelly and Curry carried Duke during the first half as the Blue Devils went into the break with a 33-31 lead. In addition to Plumlee, Curry had nine points on 3-of-5 shooting from 3-point range. Kelly added five points, three blocks and two steals. Combined, the trio scored all but five of Dukes first-half points.
Calipari said Monday that if Duke consistently hit 3s, his team would lose. Sulaimon hit three key 3-pointers in the second half, which helped build Duke's lead. As a team, the Blue Devils shot 8-of-18 44.44 percent for the game. Many came as a result of out passes from Plumlee after the defense collapsed on him.
The last couple of times I got it down there, they really converged, but that left our shooters open, Plumlee said. A couple of times, we knocked down some big 3s.
And with that, Calipari's prediction came true.