Early eruption sparks Blue Devils

DURHAM, N.C. — Duke put on a clinic Thursday night in roughing up North Carolina State in a grudge match that had a big-boy vs. little-boy feel to it.

The big boy was obviously Duke, the No. 4 team in the nation that entered having won three consecutive games since falling at Miami two weeks ago by 27 points. Not only did the Blue Devils rain 3-pointers as if their very lives depended on it, but they fought on the glass, battled in the paint, defended on the perimeter enough, ran up and down the floor on a mission, and they matched the Wolfpack’s trash talking in the 98-85 victory.

Sophomore point guard Quinn Cook, after draining a 3-pointer with around seven minutes left in the half for a 20-point lead, found himself face-to-face with 6-foot-9, 254-pound N.C. State forward Richard Howell moving toward the other end of the court. Howell obviously said something to which Cook responded by wagging a finger in his face and barking a few pleasantries.

Successful basketball for Duke is about winning every advantage the Blue Devils can within the framework of a game. If it means being better at talking trash, Duke will make it a priority.

But really, given that N.C. State came into this sweltering hallowed hall almost resigned to an ugly impending reality, the Devils weren’t challenged to match or exceed the Wolfpack in any aspect of the game. And the result was a second consecutive terrific start to a game in a season that has mostly been marked by sluggish and mediocre first halves.

“We can’t start any better than we have the last two ballgames,” said Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, whose team led 58-37 at halftime. “We’d love to have Ryan back, but we’ve learned to play with this group. I’m not saying we’re a great team, but we’re a good team with this group.”

The Blue Devils (20-2, 7-2 ACC) led by 22 points at Florida State this past weekend, so maybe this is the start of a new trend on the season.

“We’re just getting better,” said senior guard Seth Curry, who poured in 26 points. “It seemed like the whole season we couldn’t get off to good starts, the last two games we got off to great starts… We’re coming out of the gates with a lot of energy and we’re playing well.”

Duke didn’t force an inordinate number of turnovers (7) but it did force N.C. State to take a plethora of questionable-to-bad shots and allowed only 12 assists on 35 made field goals. The Wolfpack’s ratio is usually much better than that.

In the first 20 minutes, especially, the Devils didn’t allow the Wolfpack good position on the interior, and put themselves in position to use certain moments as literal juice injections, as if they needed more on the night. Attaining revenge for a loss to the Wolfpack in Raleigh last month and Duke’s general approach to improving with each game, regardless, presented plenty of fuel for the evening. But those big plays still came in handy.

The long 3s by Curry, who was 4-for-9 in the first half, a nifty turnaround jumper by senior big Mason Plumlee (30 points, 9 rebounds) inside, 4-for-4 shooting beyond the arc from Quinn Cook before halftime, and a driving, two-handed slam by redshirt freshman Alex Murphy that had to be the best he’s ever felt on a basketball court were some of those occasions.

Murphy’s jam set off a wild celebration on Duke’s bench, which included assistant coaches Steve Wojciechowski and Chris Collins and, of course the frenzied students in the stands. So approving were the Cameron Crazies of Murphy’s dunk, they changed his name over and over during the ensuing timeout.

“A play like that, the just goes crazy and it’s pretty easy to play hard and with a lot of energy when the crowd is going crazy like that,” said Murphy, who seemed almost uncomfortable talking about his jam.

The little boy was N.C. State (16-7, 5-5), at least for the first half. NCSU didn’t pack it in and succumb to a 40-point thrashing or anything. The Wolfpack slowly cut into the margin and actually trailed by just 8 points with 1:07 to play. But the 21-point halftime deficit Duke’s fiber were just too much to overcome.

The Wolfpack left Cameron with most of their dignity, but Duke left with an emphatic enough win that the rest of the ACC should take notice. The Blue Devils are charging hard again.