PHILADELPHIA — The key to a deep NCAA tournament run, Mason Plumlee said after Duke advanced to the Sweet 16, is flexibility. And thanks to their early schedule, the Blue Devils learned how to be flexible.
When you look at our nonconference, we play teams that play zone, we play in pro venues, we go to the Bahamas and play in a great tournament, Plumlee said. Theres not much we havent seen at this point in the season.
But in Dukes 66-50 win against Creighton, there was a new combination of challenges. Shots werent falling for the Blue Devils, who came in shooting 47 percent from the field. Ryan Kelly finished with one point. Both Plumlee and Kelly had three fouls within the first 30 seconds of the second quarter, and Plumlee had his fourth with 17:48 still left on the clock. On top of that, Duke had to slow a two-time All-American in Doug McDermott, perhaps the best scorer in the country.
The above shouldnt be a recipe for success. But for Duke, it was.
Its a game of adjustments, Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. I mean, nobody Im sure their coaching staff and certainly our coaching staff didnt expect everything that happened (Sunday), and so your team has to adapt really well. And its a game of adjustments.
For the Blue Devils, it meant relying on their little-used bench each starter averages at least 28 minutes per game and on freshman Rasheed Sulaimon to aggressively look for his shot. Duke liked the matchup with Sulaimon constantly drawing the third-best Creighton perimeter defender on the floor, and he delivered 21 points on 5-of-9 shooting from the field. It was a Sulaimon 3-pointer with 4 minutes, 16 seconds left on the clock that gave Duke a double-digit lead that would last the rest of the way.
Fellow freshman Amile Jefferson was forced into action late in the first half when Plumlee and Josh Hairston both had two fouls and Kelly had three. Jeffersons eight second-half minutes were particularly crucial, as he had to take his turn on McDermott when Kelly, Hairston and Plumlee each had four fouls. Thanks to the efforts of all four of Dukes post players, McDermott didnt hit a field goal in the second half and shot 25 percent from the floor the second-worst mark of his career.
They were real physical with me, and it seems like they were switching every screen, down screen, pick, just they were switching everything, making it frustrating, McDermott said. I missed a lot of shots I normally make, so that was unfortunate. But they did a great job finding me, not letting me get anything easy, so youve got to give them credit.
Plumlee and Kelly deserve credit, too, for playing effective defense despite their foul troubles. Plumlee invoked a higher power when he was whistled for his fourth so early in the second.
I just told myself that I have supernatural favor with God, Plumlee said with a smile. My career isnt going to end in foul trouble on the bench.
This was a team win, any way you look at it. Obviously Rasheed and Seth (Curry) did the majority of the scoring, but we dont win this game without all the guys.
Creighton coach Greg McDermott, Doug McDermotts father, said that if he had known beforehand that his team would hold Duke to 38.8 percent shooting, he would have taken it and rolled the dice with his chances. But he wasnt counting on an historic off night for his own offense.
Thanks in large part to Dukes game plan on McDermott, the Bluejays posted their lowest point total (50) and field goal percentage (30.2) of the older McDermotts three-year tenure at Creighton. The 2-of-19 (10.5 percent) mark from behind the arc was a low, too.
The Blue Devils probably would have been nervous if they knew before the game that they would shoot almost 10 points lower than their season average. But, thanks to an impressive display of flexibility, their season lives on.
We found a way, Quinn Cook said. We found a way.
Keeley 919-829-4556; Twitter @laurakeeley