Maturing freshman Sulaimon big for Duke

DURHAM, NC — Rasheed Sulaimon was a man Wednesday night.

The freshman wing injected No. 2 Duke with some juice when it needed it and overall gave the Blue Devils his most mature performance of the season in their 73-68 victory over hated rival North Carolina.

It wasn’t so much what Sulaimon produced statistically – 13 points, 2 rebounds, 5 assists – but how he went about helping Duke get its sixth consecutive victory. And this wasn’t just any old foe venturing into Cameron Indoor Stadium. Regardless of where the Tar Heels and Blue Devils are in the rankings and ACC standings, their battles require more than other games.

It is more physical, faster, grittier, necessitates greater mental toughness and the ability to respond quickly to big plays. These games always have big plays. Sulaimon handled every bit of this unique stage like a veteran, not a 19-year-old.

“He’s been pretty good,” said Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, who celebrated his 66th birthday Wednesday. “In this venue, in your first Duke-North Carolina game to do it makes it a little more impressive. He’s good. Every once in a while he goes to being a freshman, like (last Sunday) at Boston College. And I think that’s just going to happen. But tonight he did a great job.”

And Sulaimon did so learning a valuable lesson that is one of the most crucial parts of the maturation process.

“He’s exhausted,” Krzyzewski said. “Usually, an upper classman can work through tired better, he was able to kind of learn that tonight, to work through being tired.”

While sophomore point guard Quinn Cook had an excellent game managing the Devils and also scoring 18 points and registering four steals, Sulaimon provided terrific balance in the back court once he fully adjusted to the speed and environment.

He was perhaps the key component of a second-half stretch Duke (22-2, 9-2 ACC) desperately needed or it may not have prevailed.

Tyler Thornton rebounded a missed 3-point attempt by Seth Curry, swung the ball to Sulaimon who gave it right back to Thornton for a 3-pointer to cut UNC’s lead to 38-35. Forty-nine seconds later, Sulaimon converted a runner to cut the margin to one.

This came during an early second-half period in which UNC opened the half playing with the lead and more energy. But Sulaimon’s play stemmed the tide and allowed the rest of the Blue Devils to catch up.

Moments later, Sulaimon drained his only 3-pointer of the night to give Duke a 47-43 before finding Thornton again for another 3 and a 50-47 advantage. A basket later, and Duke had completed a 21-8 run that was essentially the difference in the game. And Sulaimon’s finger prints were all over it for the Blue Devils.

“When he’s active and engaged he can do a lot of things, for us, especially on the defensive end with loose balls and things like that,” Curry said about Sulaimon. “When he’s playing well that’s what he brings, and he can change the momentum of a game like that.”

The play that probably best exemplified Sulaimon’s effort, thinking, amazing physical attributes and that he’s learning to play late when tired came with 37.5 seconds remaining.

Thornton missed a 3-pointer from the right corner. Sulaimon came flying in from the left wing to tip the ball out to a teammate, but drew the fourth foul on UNC’s Dexter Strickland in the process. The Houston native then calmly sank both free throw for a 67-61 advantage.

Had Sulaimon not gotten to the ball, UNC would have had had the numbers for a quick fast break because of where Duke’s players were. Instead of a two-point game, UNC was essentially cornered.

“It just comes down to the will to win,” said Sulaimon, who averages 11.4 points per game. “We had to do little things like that, every one of us. You have to do stuff like that to get the win. That was a key play, and I put my body on the line. I have a lot of scratches and scars, but they’re going to feel good with that win.”

Sulaimon giving the Devils mature minutes by doing some of the dirty work is vital to Duke returning to a national title contender without Kelly. Mason Plumlee (18 points, 11 rebounds) pointed to that play specifically when discussing Sulaimon’s growth.

Sulaimon said the grace period is over.

“I have no more excuses,” he said. “It’s February now, I’m not a freshman anymore. I have to step up and help my teammates out. And the great thing about this team and this coaching staff is they have confidence in me … and if they believe in me why shouldn’t I?”

Exactly, and Sulaimon is making his teammates and Hall of Fame coach look pretty good.