Even from Mike Krzyzewski’s point of view, it didn’t look good.
The Blue Devils know they’re living dangerously with their six-man rotation. And when two of those players—Matt Jones and Grayson Allen—had four fouls each with 16 minutes left in a tight game, it just didn’t look good.
But even as Wake Forest threatened, Duke never lost the lead. The ragtag bunch held it together for six crucial minutes, and ultimately the Blue Devils ran away from the Demon Deacons late in the 91-75 win.
“It definitely proved something,” Grayson Allen said. “We had an extremely young team out there, and they proved they can hang.”
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“We don't have many guys, man,” Krzyzewski said. “Those five national championship banners, none of those guys are coming out of the woodwork and being on the team.
“We're not a really good team. We're a good team.”
Still, good was enough to withstand Wake Forest (9-5, 9-2 ACC).
Three times in the second half, the Demon Deacons cut the lead to two points, the last time at 65-63 with 9:48 left. But the No. 14 Blue Devils (13-2, 2-0 ACC) responded with an 8-0 run as Wake Forest kept missing shots. Two of those baskets came via Marshall Plumlee slams off of nice feeds from Allen and Luke Kennard. Duke had a 73-63 lead with 6:29 left in the game. The Demon Deacons never got closer than seven points the rest of the way.
Allen came back into the game with 8:16 left. For the five minutes before that, though, the Blue Devils went with four freshmen—Derryck Thornton, Brandon Ingram, Chase Jeter and Kennard—and Plumlee, the senior.
Plumlee huddled the group left on the floor together and urged them to keep calm, in his own fiery way.
“When Marshall talks to us, he's really intense,” Kennard said. “He just said, 'We got this! We got this!' It was still intense, but we knew that we had to calm down a little bit. It helped. It was a good thing.”
Krzyzewski kept calling Kennard’s number, and the freshman took advantage of the fact that he was not in foul trouble by aggressively driving to the basket. Kennard finished with 23 points and was a perfect 9-for-9 from the line. As a team, Duke went 25-for-27 from the charity stripe.
Plumlee scored a career-high 18 points, going a perfect 7-for-7 from the field and 4-for-4 from the line. When he came out with1:28 left in the game, Krzyzewski grabbed Plumlee’s face and told him his was proud of him.
“A lot of times, what he does for us doesn't show up on the stat sheet,” Allen said of Plumlee. “Tonight, it did.”
The Demon Deacons’ Devin Thomas does deserve an assist in the Duke win. The Blue Devils had no answer for him in the first half, especially after Plumlee picked up his second foul. After that, Thomas scored 11 of his 17 first-half points, as the handcuffed Plumlee, Chase Jeter and, for one minute, Sean Obi failed to stop him.
But Thomas scored just three second-half points and was limited to 10 second-half minutes due to foul trouble that was largely self-inflicted. He quickly picked up his second and third fouls two minutes into the second half. Thomas fouled Plumlee inside and kept complaining to referee Roger Ayers, who stared him down and gave him time to stop—but Thomas didn’t. So Ayers hit him with a technical foul. Allen and Plumlee made all four free throws to give Duke a 56-49 lead.
After the game, Wake Forest coach Danny Manning said that Thomas has to be smarter. Krzyzewski, while complimenting Thomas, said that the two are friends—maybe he can send him a fruit basket for the help.
“They are a different team without Devin,” Krzyzewski said.
So is Duke without Allen and Jones, but that didn’t prevent the Blue Devils from winning. There is something to be said for winning when things aren’t going according to plan, and the confidence boost should serve the Blue Devils well.
“When we do that, when we all click like that in the second half, then we're going to be a pretty good team,” Kennard said.
And that’s true even without those guys that won all those national championships.