DURHAM — The Blue Devils knew that they would be a different team without Ryan Kelly. And against the team at the bottom of the ACC standings, it took them one half to find their flow. But once they did, they rolled to a 73-57 victory over Georgia Tech.
"We have to find a new identity," Mason Plumlee said. "We are a different team without Ryan, and whatever that is, we have to find it and play to our strengths."
Duke (16-1, 3-1 in the ACC) trailed at the half for only the third time this year. But as soon as the second half started, the Blue Devils took steps toward finding that new look and promptly went on a 19-4 run.
On the first play of the second half, Duke forced a Georgia Tech miss. Rasheed Sulaimon picked up the loose-ball rebound, and fed it ahead to Quinn Cook, who stopped and nailed a 3-pointer to give Duke the lead.
And the Blue Devils never trailed again.
Mason Plumlee, who was 2-for-12 in the first half, made his first two shots in the second on a short hook shot and a put-back around Daniel Miller. And when Plumlee did miss on the next possession, Amile Jefferson was there to grab the rebound and convert the basket to give Duke a 36-31 lead.
And it continued for Duke. Seth Curry made a 3-pointer, and Plumlee backed down Miller for a two-handed slam. Duke led 41-31, Georgia Tech called a timeout, and Mike Krzyzewski ran out onto the floor, jumping into Plumlees arms and holding him in a bearhug.
"That got me going there, for sure" Plumlee said. It's pretty cool when you have a coach that will do that for you, especially at 65."
That dunk, with 16:04 left in the game, was Plumlees 15th shot attempt of the night, a season-high. He finished 7-for-20, and 5-of-8 in the second half, for 16 points.
Curry had a game-high 24 points and shot 6-of-7 from 3-point range.
It was a complete reversal of the first half, in which Duke struggled mightily on offense and Plumlee, especially, just couldnt get shots to fall. As a team, the Blue Devils shot 27 percent from the floor, their worst mark of the season. Georgia Tech (10-5, 0-3 in the ACC), turned the ball over 13 times but still led 28-27 at the half.
Duke used a new lineup, as Sulaimon came off the bench for the first time in his young career. Tyler Thornton took his starting spot, and he joined Cook, Josh Hairston, Curry and Plumlee. Gone was the theory that the Duke starters would play as many minutes as possibleKellys ankle injury forced that to changeand, instead, the Blue Devils had used eight of their nine available players in the first 10 minutes.
At one point, the Blue Devils had four freshmenMarshall Plumlee, Alex Murphy, Jefferson and Sulaimonand Cook on the floor.
Sulaimon lost his place in the starting lineup due to a shooting slump (9-for-40 in his last five games) that had also started to affect other areas of his game. But he hit his first shot of the game, a 3-pointer, and he finished 5-for-8 for 15 points. As a result of their first half play, he and Jefferson started the second half in place of Thornton and Hairston.
Jefferson continued to look like the most viable replacement option for Kelly, who is out indefinitely with a right foot injury. He cleaned up on the glass with 10 rebounds, a block and two steals and brought a consistent defensive energy.
Duke never stopped pushing in the second half. With about five minutes left, Seth Curry hit an NBA 3-pointer. Cook collected the miss on the other end, and he passed it up to a streaking Sulaimon, who layed it in with two hands to put Duke up 65-51. Any memories of the shaky first half were long forgotten.
Keeley 919-829-4556; Twitter @laurakeeley