ATLANTA — Duke showed that it is a team to be reckoned with nationally once again Tuesday night, edging NCAA defending champion Kentucky 75-68 in an entertaining and somewhat controversial early season game.
The Blue Devils survived a late charge by Kentucky, which cut what was once a 14-point Duke lead down to 3 with 2:04 left before Seth Curry (23 points) finally stopped the surge with two free throws and a layup in traffic.
Said Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski of Curry: Hes not just a shooter, hes a scorer. Hes primed for an amazing year, and he had an amazing game tonight.
There was also a controversy. Duke players drew a couple of offensive fouls early on the Wildcat players, leading Kentucky coach John Calipari to complain in a halftime TV interview with ESPNs Andy Katz that the Duke players were flopping and would have been penalized if they were in the NBA. Coach K disputed that characterization after the game, saying his players were drawing some amazing charges and werent flopping at all.
Calipari first said after the game he didnt remember saying that, then said: It was a joke. Cmon, you guys at Duke can take a joke. . Geez.
The neutral-site contest was played before 22,847 at the Georgia Dome most of them Kentucky fans. It wasnt quite a sellout even in the way the normal Atlanta Falcons stadium was configured for basketball, but it was still a mostly full, heavily pro-Kentucky crowd for the main event.
Ranked No. 3, Kentucky looked like a team still getting used to each other but that is going to be an absolute bear to play in about three months.
Ranked No. 9, Duke looked like a very smart team that will need both Mason Plumlee (18 points) and Curry to lead the Blue Devils all season and to score a whole lot of big baskets if they are going to achieve greatness.
Dukes best big man, Plumlee, picked up his third and fourth fouls in the first four minutes of the second half. His fourth foul came 20 feet away from the basket with Duke up by 6 points and could have changed the tenor of the game, as Krzyzewski pulled him for the next six minutes.
Extending the lead
But Duke not only hung in there without Plumlee, the Blue Devils extended their lead to 12 at 54-42 with an improbable run keyed by Currys drives and good team defense. Plumlee came back with 10 minutes still to go and didnt foul out until 34 seconds were left. Kentucky, meanwhile, made what felt like an inevitable run in a game matching two teams that were almost evenly matched but fell short.
The mens Final Four will also be held in the Georgia Dome starting on April 6. This early season tournament had a field worthy of that event, although the atmosphere wasnt quite the same. The first game, with Michigan State winning 67-64 over Kansas, featured rows of empty seats.
Kentucky fans fill stands
Kentucky had an enormous fan base as usual, dwarfing the Blue Devils. One Kentucky fan wore a T-shirt that read I Still Hate Laettner, referencing Christian Laettners shot to beat Kentucky 20 years ago in what is widely regarded as one of the best NCAA tournament games ever.
The late game had spurts of frantic intensity and a pedigree that was hard to beat the two teams have combined for 12 national championships.
Counting on freshmen
Kentuckys vaunted freshmen were replacing Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, who went 1-2 in the NBA draft this past summer. Explosive Wildcat forward Alex Poythress (20 points) looked like the most impressive Tuesday, several times dunking right over or through Duke players. But Dukes team was most impressive of all, outdoing the Wildcats down the stretch.
Scott Fowler: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter@Scott_Fowler