DURHAM — Entering the game against Ohio State, freshman Rasheed Sulaimon had taken the second-most shots of any Duke player.
But he took just two in the first half. And neither went in.
He was a little down on himself, Ryan Kelly said. Obviously, when youre a freshman, its even harder to get out of that hole, even if its a little hole.
I just told him, Youre a heck of a player. Youve shown it all year against great teams, so go show it in the second half. And he did.
Sulaimon went 7-of-10 in the second half, scoring 17 points. His contribution was a key part of No. 2 Dukes 73-68 win over No. 4 Ohio State.
For a freshmen, I thought he got knocked back, coach Mike Krzyzewski said. At halftime, he responded. He had 17 points in the second half and gave us a verve. He gave us a real verve.
Sulaimon did, indeed, show vigor and spirit, or enthusiasm, in the second half. And hes shown that all year. Sulaimon took Seth Currys spot in the starting lineup during the preseason, when Currys right shin kept him off the court completely. But when Curry was ready to return, Sulaimon didnt leave the lineup. Duke opted to sacrifice a few inches (the 6-foot-8 Alex Murphy went to the bench while 6-foot-4 Sulaimon stayed) and instead kept Sulaimons offensive and defensive verve on the floor.
Through seven games, Sulaimon is averaging 12.7 points per game, third-most on the team behind Curry and Mason Plumlee. At this point in the year, Sulaimons scoring pace is actually not far from where another Duke freshman Austin Rivers was at the same time last season (14.4 points per game).
Sulaimon does more than just score, though, and, personality-wise, is nothing like Rivers. Sulaimons 4.3 rebounds per game also rank third on the team, as do his six total steals. And he has the ability to impact the game defensively with his reach in ways that arent quantifiable.
Rasheed is really as good of freshman as there is in the country, Krzyzewski said. This kid is playing well.
And Wednesday night, Sulaimon showed he can respond quickly after not meeting the high standard he has set. Kelly wasnt the only one who talked to him at halftime--Krzyzewski did, too.
The message: be more aggressive.
In the first half especially, I was very passive, Sulaimon said. In the second half, I just wanted to look more for my shot. My teammates gave me great passes, set great screens to set me up, and I was very fortunate that some of those shots did fall in the second half.
Part of Sulaimons surge resulted from tweaks to Dukes offense. Throughout the first half, Duke struggled to generate any open looks. In the second half, the team set fewer ball screens and instead tried to push the pace and open space to drive. As a result, Sulaimon found more space to shoot on the elbows.
Sulaimon connected for his first basket within two minutes of the second halfs opening. His jump shot was an immediate response to Ohio State taking a 10-point lead at 33-23, the largest Buckeyes advantage of the night. From there, his shots started to fall, and he ended his night with Dukes last field goal, an emphatic, one-handed dunk to put Duke up 66-58 with 1:04 remaining in the game.
I dont know if a kid is going to respond, Krzyzewski said of his halftime challenge to Sulaimon. For a freshman to respond that way is superb. It just doesnt happen very often.
This kid at halftime said, youre right, Ive got to do something, and he was sensational.
Keeley 919-829-4556; Twitter @laurakeeley