WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — Duke escaped Joel Coliseum with a narrow victory Wednesday night, averting what would have been a damaging and somewhat embarrassing defeat.
Losing at Wake Forest isn’t the shame it was the past couple of seasons. After all, Xavier, Virginia and North Carolina State have fallen here over the past month.
But fifth-ranked Duke is a different animal, even if the Blue Devils are battling through an identity crisis in the post-Ryan Kelly injury portion of their season, and Duke doesn’t lose games like this in ACC play. At least, history says, the Mike Krzyzewski-coached Devils don’t.
And Duke (18-2, 5-2 ACC) didn’t on this night, even though Wake earned more wow points and gained the respect of many ACC eyes in the 75-70 final. But the devil is in the details — the minutiae of the game, which has been a common denominator of Duke teams for decades.
“Coach always stresses us to do the little things, that little things win games, especially on the defensive end,” junior forward Josh Hairston said. “We knew this game would be won on the defensive end and those are the plays you have to make to win games.”
Mason Plumlee scored a career-high 32 points, but the 6-foot-8 Hairston was Duke’s poster boy for late-game little things on this night. He had a rough first half, especially on defense, and heard about it from Krzyzewski at halftime. But he dug down and saved some of the best basketball of his Duke career for the game’s most crucial moments.
Two plays in particular stand out: Caught in a switch on defense, Hairston blocked a leaning jumper by Wake guard C.J. Harris with 3:17 left and the score tied. And then with 21 seconds remaining, Plumlee blocked a Wake shot, and with the ball falling out of bounds, Hairston made a terrific save, passed the ball to a teammate, and Duke was able to ice the game.
Two plays that won’t make one highlight reel, except maybe when the Blue Devils watch the game film, were huge, especially for a player who could have wilted earlier but didn’t.
“He played very poorly in the first half. I mean not poor, I thought very poorly,” Krzyzewski said about Hairston. “And most kids, that’s it for the night. He’s got equity so we put him back in, and in the second half he really played well. Besides those plays, he gave us a good unit out there for the time that he was in.”
Hairston, who averages only two points and 2.2 rebounds per game, wasn’t the only Blue Devils player who did the little things. This was the kind of gritty victory that required a game’s worth of dirty work. Consider that senior sharpshooter Seth Curry didn’t hit his only 3-pointer until 3:01 remained — and it broke a 66-66 tie — and that freshman forward Amile Jefferson, who had replaced Hairston in the starting lineup three games ago, failed to score and was in foul trouble all night.
In addition, Duke didn’t have the services of Kelly, who was a Demon Deacons assassin when healthy. He had scored 20 or more points against Wake (10-10, 3-5) in the teams’ previous four meetings.
So this victory was as much, if not more, about the little things than it was Plumlee’s 32 points and Curry’s 21.
“We’ll be really good when guys realize big plays are not just a dunk or a big basket, but getting a loose ball, taking a charge, getting a block,” Plumlee said. “There are so many ways to have an impact on the game, and when those guys do that, it makes us really good.”
Like Krzyzewski said, Hairston had some equity, got another opportunity and made the most of it. That has long been the Duke way, and he personified it on this night.
“That’s what I’ve always done, even in high school,” said Hairston, who had two points and three rebounds in 14 minutes. “I really don’t care as long as my team wins, and as long as I can help my team that’s what I’m gonna do.”