DURHAM — The first time Duke faced N.C. State, the Blue Devils were beginning their search for a new offensive identity.
It was clear Thursday night that they have found it, especially early in the game, as the first-half cushion they built didnt run out in a 98-85 win. But the Wolfpack came close late in the game, making Duke work until the final minute.
I dont know how you couldnt be proud of both teams tonight, Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski said. That was great ACC basketball.
Each team traded outstanding shooting halves, as Duke shot 61.3 percent from the field in the first half and led 58-37. N.C. State responded with a 65.5 percent performance to make the game interesting late.
Trailing by 21 points and missing point guard Lorenzo Brown due to a left ankle injury, N.C. State came out strong in the second half. The Wolfpack hit 12 of its first 14 shots, closing the deficit to 12, 78-66, with 9:21 remaining on the clock.
But Richard Howell, who dominated the first matchup, was whistled for his fourth foul on the next possession.
When a team is in foul trouble, its just kind of like you smell blood, and you just keep going at them, Mason Plumlee said. When guys are playing not to foul, it makes them susceptible to a lot of things.
Plumlee finished with a game-high 30 points on 9-of-11 shooting from the field andin an especially positive development12-of-16 shooting from the free throw line. Duke ran several isolation plays designed to get Plumlee the ball in the second half, and he was able to post up both Howell and Leslie.
Duke's frontcourt was especially thin, with Ryan Kelly unavailable due to an ankle injury and Josh Hairston out with an infection in his right arm that needed surgery earlier in the week. But Amile Jefferson and Alex Murphy filled in admirably, playing a combined 37 minutes and--most importantly--staying out of foul trouble.
It was an offensive foul that ended Howells night with 3:41 left on the clock and the Duke leading 88-75. Howell elbowed Plumlee in the head, sending him to the bench with 23 points and nine rebounds.
C.J. Leslie cut the lead to single digits after Quinn Cook traveled in the backcourt, hitting one of two free throws to cut the score to 89-80 Duke with 1:52 left on the clock.
Tyler Thornton also traveled in the backcourt with Duke holding a 91-82 lead, but Duke got a huge defensive stop thanks to a Plumlee block.
Scott Wood hit a 3, his fourth of the game, to cut it to 93-85 with just over a minute left. It was the first time in the Gottfried era that the Wolfpack lost a game in which Wood hit four 3s (13-1).
Rasheed Sulaimon was called for an offensive foul on the ensuing inbounds passthe third backcourt turnover for the Blue Devils down the stretchbut a Jordan Vandenberg hook shot wouldnt go, and Wood missed a long 3. Curry pulled down the rebound and made both free throws 95-85 with 52 seconds remaining. Plumlee added a dunk over Vandenberg with 23.2 seconds left on the clock.
We just couldnt seem to get one or two more stops and scorers at the same time right when we needed to, N.C. State head coach Mark Gottfried said. Our guys battled hard. They never quit.
No. 4 Duke (20-2, 7-2 in the ACC) opened the game with a 28-9 run--an "unbelievable start," Krzyzewski said-- and scored 58 first-half points, a season-high. It was also the third time this ACC season that N.C. State (16-7, 5-5) had given up at least 50 points in a half.
Less than a month ago in Raleigh, Duke had just lost Ryan Kelly, and his absence forced the Blue Devils to find a new offensive identity. The coaches installed offensive sets that put more emphasis on finding Plumlee and Seth Curry, which the Blue Devils did at will all night.
Curry finished with 26 points on 6-of-15 shooting from the field and 10-of-12 from the line. Wolfpack freshman Rodney Purvis struggled to guard Curry as he looked for screens all over the court. When he did receive the ball, he instantly fired, not giving Purvis any time to recover.
"We would love to have Ryan back, but weve at least learned to play with this group," Krzyzewski said. "Im not saying were a great team, but were a good team now with this group."
Keeley: 919-829-4556; Twitter @laurakeeley