With Ohio State leading 31-23 at halftime, having outplayed the Blue Devils in every facet of the game, Duke looked sluggish and out-of-sync, but it was lucky that its deficit was not greater. The athletic Buckeye lineup was outhustling Duke and grabbed 11 offensive rebounds in the first half. On both ends, the feisty Ohio State guards were having their way with Duke’s starting backcourt, which combined for a meager four first-half points.
“I thought we were being put in positions that were less advantageous to run good offense [in the first half],” Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski said. The raucous crowd at Cameron Indoor Stadium could sense the post-Thanksgiving hangover reoccurring for Duke.
After all, the Blue Devils were virtually in the same position a year ago—coming off the emotional-high of winning one of the premiere Thanksgiving tournaments in college basketball. Last November, a host of factors—fatigue, immaturity and lack of togetherness—led to Duke’s embarrassing 85-63 demise on the road against Buckeyes, who eventually marched on to the Final Four. The early-season setback foreshadowed the Blue Devils’ future: an upset loss on the opening-weekend of the 2012 NCAA Tournament.
The Blue Devils were seemingly on the verge of getting knocked out for the second-straight year in the ACC/Big 10 Challenge. With its 96-game non-conference-home winning streak on the line and payback on the players’ minds, Duke came out of the locker room with a swagger in the second half—something fans never saw in last season’s squad.
“They got knocked back in the first half, and then played great in the second half, and just fought,” Krzyzewski said.
Chipping away at the Buckeye’s lead—that peaked at 10 points in the second half—the Blue Devils received resilient second-half performances from Rasheed Sulaimon, Ryan Kelly and Quinn Cook, who collectively scored 35 points in the second half to complement Mason Plumlee’s dominating 21-point, 17-rebound performance. Spearheaded by Cook at point guard, the newfound offensive rhythm allowed Duke to scrap and claw its way back, take the lead and ultimately get highly sought-after revenge.
“We certainly wanted [the win],” Kelly said, with regards to having lost to the Buckeyes last season. “We had to prove as team that winning our first championship, that we could put that behind us and take the next step. Last year is last year, but we couldn’t make that step last year.”
After going scoreless and playing his worst half in a Duke uniform, Sulaimon showed unique character, especially for a rookie, by bouncing back with a critical 17 points in the second half. In the process, the youngster illustrated his versatile game—creating his own shots both off the dribble and on deep 3-pointers.
“For a freshman to respond that way is superb,” Krzyzewski said. “It just doesn’t happen very often.”
But it was the three seniors that made it happen. The trio of leaders pulled the talented freshman shooting guard aside at halftime and demanded that the youngster step up in the second half—another telling sign that this Duke team is poised for a deeper postseason run.
“All three of them came to me and said I need to step it up,” Sulaimon said. “I just wanted to do it for them, not for me. I had a bad half in the first half, and in the second half I just wanted to do whatever I can to make those guys proud. ”
The team is clearly tougher and has taken a step it failed to last year. The Blue Devils escaped murderer’s row—No. 8 Kentucky, No. 21 Minnesota, VCU, No. 5 Louisville and No. 4 Ohio State—unscathed in the month of November.
“I have liked my group,” Krzyzewski said. “You just don’t know if they have the confidence, the endurance and the togetherness to go through a stretch like that. It’ll be hard to find anybody that has been through a stretch like this. They have gotten better. I knew my team was together, but through accomplishment they have gotten more together.”