WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. (AP) — Duke capped off its perfect run on the road in the Atlantic Coast Conference with a few minutes of play that was anything but.
The fourth-ranked Blue Devils let much of a 23-point lead slip away before holding on to beat Wake Forest 79-71 on Tuesday night, becoming the third team in school history to finish 8-0 in conference road games.
Ultimately, that lapse only cost them in their margin of victory, but they know they can’t afford a repeat with the biggest game of the season — a visit from No. 6 North Carolina — up next.
“Our defensive intensity was lacking there for a little stretch. That’s something we can’t have happen,” forward Ryan Kelly said. “But to pull out a victory against a team that had been playing well at home, and be 8-0 (in league road games), is a huge accomplishment.”
Kelly scored a career-high 23 points — putting up 20 against the Demon Deacons for the third straight time — to lead the Blue Devils (26-4, 13-2) to their seventh straight win and fifth in a row in the cross-state series.
And for much of the game, this looked like just another blowout.
Duke led 65-42 with 9 minutes left before Wake Forest figured out a way to make things tense, turning to its defense during a 19-2 run that cut the deficit to six points — and setting up two good chances to get even closer. The Blue Devils went more than 5 minutes between field goals.
“We just needed to get down and defend, get some stops so we could get out and go,” Wake Forest coach Jeff Bzdelik said. “When the light went on and we got some stops, we got ourselves going.”
The Demon Deacons had the ball down 72-66 with less than 2 minutes left, but Tony Chennault missed a 3-pointer, Duke milked the clock and Miles Plumlee chased down the critical offensive rebound of Tyler Thornton’s missed jumper with just over 1 minute left. Seth Curry hit two free throws with 48.9 seconds left to make it 74-66.
The last chance came when Curry’s miss of the front end of a 1-and-1 left Duke’s lead at 74-68 with 35.8 seconds left. Chennault missed another 3 and Kelly added two free throws with 25.8 seconds to play.
“I thought I was going to make it, and by the time I (shot) it, it felt kind of short (and) my legs kind of died on me because I played a lot in the second half,” Chennault said. “It was a good shot, just a tough game.”
Nikita Mescheriakov and Chennault both had 18 points for the Demon Deacons (13-16, 4-11), who have lost two of three and eight of 10 with the only wins in that stretch coming against the only two teams — Boston College and Georgia Tech — they are ahead of in the league standings.
Meanwhile, the Blue Devils became the third team in school history, joining both the 1998-99 and 1999-2000 teams, to finish 8-0 in ACC road games and remained on a roll entering Saturday night’s visit from the Tar Heels in what will be a meeting of ACC co-leaders if North Carolina beats Maryland on Wednesday night.
“People have graded our performances all year instead of grading our record,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “People want to nitpick — `You didn’t play well for these 4 minutes,’ and `You only won by this’ and something — instead of saying, `They’ve done a good job, man. They’ve done a great job.’
“To play in a game of that magnitude before the tournaments is huge,” he added.
Kelly, a 6-foot-11 Raleigh native, has been a particularly tough matchup for the Demon Deacons ever since he established himself in Duke’s rotation as a sophomore last season. His previous career-high of 21 points came in a 91-73 win against them last month at Cameron Indoor Stadium, and twice in this one he made baskets that gave Duke its largest lead at 23 points — including a 3-pointer with 11 minutes left that made it 63-40.
“I think he’s been playing pretty well lately, and he just needed to take it up a notch,” Krzyzewski said. “And he did.”
Curry scored 15 points, Mason Plumlee had 12 points, Austin Rivers added 10 and Miles Plumlee finished with 11 rebounds for the Blue Devils, who shot 45 percent and hit 10 3-pointers before letting the Demon Deacons back into the game.
Travis McKie scored 14 points, C.J. Harris had 11 and Carson Desrosiers finished with 10 for Wake Forest, which trailed 65-42 with under 10 minutes to play before its huge run made it a game again. McKie’s jumper with just under 5 minutes left made it 67-61 — the first time since midway through the first half that Wake Forest was that close.
“We just fought,” McKie said. “You see one shot go in, you just start believing. … If we lock down defensively and rebound, we can compete with anybody.”