Three Hits: Duke dumps Albany in NCAAs

Here are three things we gleaned from No. 2 Duke’s 73-61 win over No. 15 Albany in the Round of 64 (Midwest region):

1. Big, bad Duke actually cleared a mental hurdle in beating a lesser-light opponent

Historically speaking, the 2-15 matchup in the Round of 64 has been a boilerplate exercise for all parties, where a scrappy, undersized team plays hard and smart for 20 minutes … before the higher seed eventually flexes its muscles and pulls away for a second-half rout. It’s largely a tuneup for the weekend encounter with a No. 7 or 10 seed.

However, since last year’s Duke squad was one of only six 2-seeds in NCAA history to fall to a 15 (Lehigh), the Blue Devils must have been feeling a little bit of pressure against the Great Danes on Friday, carrying the burden of the 2012 collapse.

Plus, Duke wanted to avoid becoming the first program in history to lose multiple tourney games to a 15-seed.

But thanks to Seth Curry (26 points) and Mason Plumlee (23 points, nine rebounds), the Blue Devils were never scared beyond belief during their tourney opener in Philly — even with the Great Danes connecting on nine three-pointers.

It did get briefly hairy, though. Down eight with four minutes to play, Albany was on the brink of securing a long defensive rebound and triggering a 3-on-1 fast break. But as the teams scrambled for the loose ball, a Great Danes player attempted to swat the ball toward the Albany basket … only to knock it into the waiting hands of Curry, who drove through the lane for an easy layup. Duke now led, 66-56.

A few seconds later, Duke’s Ryan Kelly stole a pass and set up an eventual rim-rattling jumper from Curry, essentially putting the game on ice for the Blue Devils, who will play either Creighton on Sunday.

2. Devils guard Quinn Cook deserves major props for setting a fine passing example

For reasons unknown, Albany went out of its way to play tight man-to-man defense, so much that Duke routinely got open looks off backdoor cuts and when rolling off screens. Enter Cook (four points), who racked up 11 assists while orchestrating the Blue Devils’ half-court sets and primary fast breaks.

Prior to Friday, Cook had notched double-digit points in 13 of his last 18 games; on the flip side, he only had double-digit assists in two seasonal outings (12 against Cornell, 14 against Wake Forest). And yet, Cook had little trouble flipping the script against Albany, thanks to his teammates wisely wandering to defenseless areas.

As a bonus, Cook might have inspired Curry (behind-the-back pass to Ryan Kelly) and Plumlee (no-look, over-the-head pass in the paint — missed layup) to go beyond their comfort zones with in-traffic passes.

3. In terms of Sunday, don’t count out Duke for repeat games of 59-percent shooting

From Feb. 21 to March 15, the Blue Devils had per-game averages of 50-percent shooting — an impressive figure that also factored in a 40-percent clunker loss to Virginia on Feb. 28.

Of its last eight games (including Friday), Duke has six outings of 50 percent or higher from the field — a run that coincides with Curry’s hot shooting touch (26 threes since Feb. 16).

Against Albany, though, Curry (10 of 14 shooting) needed only two triples and four free throws to clinch his sixth 20-point outing since Valentine’s Day.