With Duke’s season on the line, there was no time for pleasantries. So at halftime of the Blue Devils’ 93-85 win over UNC Wilmington in the first round of the NCAA tournament, coach Mike Krzyzewski ripped into his team.
And he specifically went after his senior captain, Marshall Plumlee.
“Coach K definitely talked to him a lot while he was in here,” freshman forward guard Brandon Ingram said of Plumlee. “He pinpointed him out saying that he wasn’t having a good first half. So second half, he responded.”
The fourth-seeded Blue Devils (24-10) looked sluggish and did not shoot well in the first half, and UNCW (25-8), the No. 13 seed, led 43-40. The Seahawks did not have a post player that was anywhere close to ACC caliber, but Plumlee had just four points and two rebounds in 13 minutes.
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Thus, the fiery halftime call-out.
“We had to show our manhood because we didn’t want the season to end,” junior guard Matt Jones added. “It wasn’t all fun and games. People got challenged.”
It wasn’t one of those talks where an angry Krzyzewski said his piece and then Plumlee responded. Plumlee’s response was immediate and intense.
“You never see a calm Marshall,” Ingram said. “He was showing a lot of emotion while he was talking.”
“Coach K treats us like men,” Jones added. “He’s not going to sit back and wait for you to do this or that and vice versa. Marshall, when he had something to say, he said it, no matter who was talking. We’re all men around here.
“He just told us that he got us,” Jones said of Plumlee’s message. “And he was going to be himself, and he was going to be the beast that we knew he could.”
Plumlee responded with 19 second-half points and finished with a career-high 23. He was 9-of-10 from the field. In terms of shooting percentage, only Christian Laettner’s 10-for-10 effort against Kentucky in 1992 ranks higher in Duke history.
“I was definitely mad at myself for my play in the first half,” Plumlee said. “You never want to let your teammates down.”
Plumlee was far from the only one who had a slow start to the game. Sophomore guard Grayson Allen finished with 23 points, 10 rebounds and five assists, but his first-half was decidedly less impressive: seven points on 1-for-7 shooting, three rebounds, two assists and two turnovers.
The Blue Devils were fortunate the 43-40 halftime deficit wasn’t larger. Shots weren’t falling, and the Seahawks led 41-34 late in the half. Freshman guard Luke Kennard immediately answered a 3 from UNCW’s Denzel Ingram with one of his own, and Duke’s Brandon Ingram added a 3 right before the buzzer to keep the momentum from turning completely.
Brandon Ingram had a few more seconds to drive the the lane if he wanted, but he opted to pull up and take the long-range shot. He was a matchup nightmare for the Seahawks and finished with 20 points.
“It was huge,” Jones said of Brandon Ingram’s 3. “To go into halftime down only 3, the way we played, was definitely a win for us. People might not talk about it as much, but we definitely needed that 3.”
“I had confidence in my shot,” Brandon Ingram said when asked why he didn’t keep driving. “I had hit a few shots going into that shot. Just knowing that I practice that shot a lot and can knock that shot down.”
With disaster averted and Krzyzewski’s anger plainly expressed, Plumlee responded by swatting UNCW’s first shot attempt of the half into the baseline. He blocked the next one, too, but was whistled for a foul. Still, the tone had been set.
The Seahawks opened the second half with three turnovers, six fouls and 1-for-6 shooting in the first five minutes. The Blue Devils used a 14-0 run midway through the second half to retake the lead that it wouldn’t relinquish.
The game wasn’t won, though, until the final seconds. The Seahawks had the ball down five, 90-85, with 27 seconds left. Freshman Chase Jeter blocked a C.J. Bryce shot attempt, and Allen collected the rebound. UNCW was forced to foul, and Duke went 3-for-4 from the line to ice the game.
“You always hear about the sense of urgency you need to play with in the tournament because it’s one loss and you’re out,” Plumlee said. “Sometimes it’s hard to fully appreciate that until you’re actually in the moment and see it going the wrong way. A little bit of that happened to us tonight.”
Plumlee was at Duke for both the Blue Devils’ first-round losses to Lehigh and Mercer. He couldn’t forget those experiences even if he wanted to.
“That’s something I’ve thought about a lot, coming into every year, honestly, with Duke,” he said. “And what can we do differently when I find myself in that moment. Today, we found ourselves in the moment. As a team, coach made sure we did something different and it didn’t happen again.”