DURHAM, N.C. -- The last time Duke played NC State -- an eight-point loss in Raleigh last month that snapped a 15-game Blue Devils winning streak and pushed them out of the top spot in the national polls -- it was still searching for an offensive identity without senior forward Ryan Kelly.
Looks like the fourth-ranked Blue Devils have found it.
Using a bevy of pretty 3-pointers, No. 4 Duke ripped off a big lead to open Thursday's rematch at Cameron Indoor Stadium. Using some patience and emotion and a whole bunch of free throws, it withstood a Wolfpack rally down the stretch and won 98-85.
“We’d love to have Ryan back, but we’ve learned how to play with this group,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “I’m not saying we’re a great team -- but we’re a good team now, with this group.”
They were a group with a lot of question marks mere weeks ago, when the 6-foot-11 Kelly -- a key component of the attack, what with the way he could draw defenses away from the lane with his 3-pointers -- was sidelined with an injured right foot.
The Blue Devils looked befuddled in their first game without him, allowing State to score (and score, and score) in transition on Jan. 12, while Duke struggled to hit 3s.
And they looked downright bad two games later, when they went to Miami on Jan. 23 and got embarrassed by 27 points.
With its fourth consecutive victory on Thursday, though, Duke (20-2, 7-2 ACC) showed that all of its talented pieces have re-formed a cohesive unit.
There was forward Mason Plumlee, recording his second 30-or-more-point game in three outings -- including two technical free throws with 3 minutes, 41 seconds left, when State’s Richard Howell earned a flagrant foul on an elbow and fouled out.
And there were Alex Murphy (four points, highlight-worthy two-handed dunk), Tyler Thornton (six assists in 18 minutes), Amile Jefferson (four points, five rebounds), and Rasheed Sulaimon (11 points) contributing and doing their parts -- key because the Devils were down to eight healthy scholarship players (forward Josh Hairston was sidelined with an infection).
“When Ryan goes down, a lot of guys started keying on Mason and Seth, so that gives all of us the opportunity to be more aggressive,” Cook said. “We have to step up. And I think everybody is answering the call.”
State, playing its second game without starting point guard Lorenzo Brown, made it interesting in the second half, shooting a net-burning 65.5 percent and cutting the once-22-point lead to as little as eight on a Scott Wood 3-pointer with 68 seconds left.
But with Howell (23 points, nine rebounds) and C.J. Leslie (16 points, six rebounds) benched by five fouls, the Wolfpack ran out of firepower, and time. Duke make sure of it.
“For two teams that have key players out, what a performance by both teams,” Krzyzewski said. “That was ACC basketball tonight. I thought both teams played their hearts out. I don’t know if we can play any harder or better in the first half. [But] they’re so talented, especially on the offensive end, they’re never out of a game, they’re good.
"They’re just really good.”
But so, again, is Duke, which is competing not for the chance at revenge, Krzyzewski said, but for the opportunity to improve.
Looks like it has.
“For sure,” Plumlee said. “And when [Ryan] gets back, we’ll just get better. Because we’ll have more guys with experience; it won’t be a thing like, ‘How do people respond when he gets back?’ Because me and Seth have played with him, and the young guys have played with him. We’re going to be a better team because of this.”