As Duke players ran off the court Thursday night after their diligent 74-66 victory against No. 15 Florida State, they hugged one another and clapped giddily.
They celebrated in part because the triumph before 12,100 upset-minded fans at the Donald L. Tucker Center avenged a heartbreaking home loss to the Seminoles on a 3-pointer at the buzzer last month, but it had much greater implications.
Because in a peculiar season for the Blue Devils that has featured a rare pair of home losses, an undefeated conference road record and a blowout loss at then second-ranked Ohio State, coach Mike Krzyzewski has his fifth-ranked team in a position it has been many times in the past. It is tied for first place in the Atlantic Coast Conference and in control of its own destiny to win the league’s regular-season title with three games left.
With five straight wins, Duke has propelled itself back into the conversation for a possible No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament, a seemingly impossible feat until standout freshman guard Austin Rivers’ clutch, last-second 3-pointer stunned North Carolina just more than two weeks ago and started his team’s improbable streak.
“It’s been kind of an up-and-down season,” said Rivers, who had 20 points on Thursday night. “But we’ve stayed poised throughout it. We’re just starting to come together.”
Although Duke (24-4, 11-2 ACC) led throughout except for a few times in the game’s first 10 minutes, Florida State (19-8, 10-3) twice pulled to within three points late, once with 4:56 left in the game and 39 seconds later. But both times Duke answered on the ensuing possession with a 3-pointer.
The Blue Devils were 13 of 28 from 3-point range, which included a 6-of-9 effort by junior guard Andre Dawkins, who finished with a game-high 22 points off the bench. He had five clutch 3s in the first half that were key to his team’s 39-32 halftime lead.
“Our 3-point shooting was probably the difference in the game,” Krzyzewski said.
A 3-pointer also seems to be the difference in Duke’s season. Rivers and his teammates credit Rivers’ game-winning shot to beat North Carolina on the road on Feb. 8 for their improved play as of late.
“No one thought we were going to win that game,” senior forward Miles Plumlee said. “It gave us a new sense of confidence. We’re just playing with that every game now.”
Since the North Carolina victory, Rivers said he and his teammates have bought into playing as a team. Now, they know one another’s spots on the floor, make the extra pass for open shots and even help one another up after falling to the floor, he said.
“We are a team now,” Rivers said. “We’ve just got to keep it going.”
Not that Rivers and Co. have forgotten their struggles before his North Carolina heroics, which averted what would have been a devastating two-game losing streak. Even before the season, they heard the whispers about losing three NBA draft picks from last year’s team and not returning a single player who averaged double digits in points.
“There was a lot of question marks,” said Plumlee, who had 10 points and eight rebounds. “A lot of new guys. New roles. A large freshmen class. People doubted us.”
Rivers acknowledged that Duke’s critics have been “rough” on him and his teammates at times this season, but he insisted they have never lost confidence in themselves.
“People are demanding of Duke,” Rivers said. “Everybody’s, ‘Duke’s supposed to be the greatest. Duke, Duke, Duke.’ But now we’re right there. We’ve got to keep it up, but we’re not really worried about the expectations. We’re just worried about our team expectations for us and that’s to win.”
The X factor for just how far Duke goes the rest of this season could be Dawkins, who entered the game shooting 40.7 percent on 3s and averaging 9.4 points per game. He now has hit five 3-pointers or more in four games this season and was twice fouled on 3-point attempts Thursday night.
“’Dre is one of the best shooters I’ve ever seen,” Plumlee said. “When he comes ready like that, it gives our team a whole new feel.”
Dawkins hitting 3s keeps defenders from double-teaming Plumlee and his brother, Mason, a junior forward. It also opens up the floor for Rivers, who entered Thursday night averaging a team-best 15 points per game.
“It makes it a lot easier on me because if he’s not, they’re just cramped in the paint waiting for me,” Rivers said.
By the time Duke players got back to their locker room Thursday night, it was as if their brief celebration as they ran off the court had never happened. A focused Rivers reminded a reporter that the Blue Devils’ next game Saturday at home against Virginia Tech was just 36 hours away.
In addition to the Hokies, Duke also will be favored at Wake Forest before it closes the regular season on March 3 with a home game against rival North Carolina, which is also tied for first in the ACC — a matchup that likely will determine the league’s regular season champion.
“Things are working out for us,” Rivers said. “It’s going to work.”
And if Duke continues to play like recently, there will be plenty more celebrations. Just don’t rule out more of the unexpected from these Blue Devils.