WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — The good thing about Duke playing at Wake Forest a game before hosting a rematch with North Carolina is that it didn’t take a 40-minute effort to beat the Demon Deacons.
It wasn’t that Duke could save itself for the Tar Heels. Mike Krzyzewski has too much respect for any opponent to order that command, especially ACC teams on the road. But the truth of the matter is, Wake is struggling mightily, and this didn’t require a memorable performance by the Blue Devils to emerge on top.
And with that game on the horizon combined with human nature, it’s understandable Duke didn’t deliver a breathtaking performance.
Duke had its moments, though, as the Blue Devils used a 12-0 first-half run to gain some separation from the spirited home team and muscled up defensively to ignite what appeared to be a game-sealing run beginning several minutes into the second half.
Wake had a really nice run late in the contest, cutting the margin from 23 to six, but otherwise, Duke was ordinary in its 79-71 victory, and that’s OK.
It’s OK, because now that March is just about here, winning is what matters. Teams aren’t really going to improve much between now and the ACC Tournament. You are who you are. And for Duke, winning in different environments, playing different styles and with a variation of players leading the way is a healthy way to head into the UNC game and beyond.
There was an element to survive and advance in this contest just like in last Saturday’s overtime win versus Virginia Tech.
“You just have to keep going forward,” Devils freshman Austin Rivers said. “Guys’ legs might be a little tired, but you have to understand what’s at stake and that’s championships and stuff that goes on the walls.”
Among the challenges the Blue Devils faced Tuesday was that they had to generate their own intensity as Joel Coliseum was again a mausoleum. This place had a terrific atmosphere just a few years ago, especially for opponents such as Duke. But deep apathy has settled in and the fans are staying away, and those that show up aren’t very noisy.
Duke’s intensity and focus ebbed and flowed, which made it a constant challenge. Another test was getting Ryan Kelly going.
The 6-foot-10 junior failed to reach double figures in points in five of Duke’s previous seven games heading into this contest, so his 23-point effort (a season high) on four or five 3-pointers might be the best development of the evening for the blue-clad visitors.
Kelly had made just nine of 31 shot attempts from beyond the arc during that seven-game stretch, and him finding a zone could be huge heading into the UNC game.
“He came out real aggressive on his own,” Duke point guard Tyler Thornton said. “I know he’s been putting a lot of pressure on his shot lately and passing up a lot of shots. But tonight, he was letting it fly, he was taking what the defense was giving him. If they were pressuring him he was driving by them, if they gave him a cushion he was hitting a 3.
“I’m happy for him, and we need him to keep shooting like that going into the UNC game and ACC Tournament.”
The other challenge forced Duke to respond to a Wake run that really caught everyone in the building by surprise, including the Blue Devils. And that’s where the education comes in.
The Devils had been so focused and played with such spirit going back to the win at UNC that human nature finally settled in, and they took their feet off the pedal. The Demon Deacons cut it to 67-61, and the Devils couldn’t shake them.
“We kind of relaxed a little bit,” Seth Curry acknowledged. “We got a 20-plus point lead, and we kind of relaxed. They made some tough shots, we turned it over and made it easy on them. We can’t do that, especially on the road.”
So, this was basically a game few Duke fans will vividly recall this summer, but it still came with some lessons. It also came with a victory, and we’re entering a time of year where ultimately that’s all that matters.