Duke’s ‘Big Three’ too much for ‘Canes

CORAL GABLES, Fla. — Scalpers were at the University of Miami’s BankUnited Center for the first time this season. Scalpers. That’s a rare sight in the nine-year history of Miami’s first on-campus basketball facility.

So, too, was the record-setting sellout crowd of 7,972 that jammed the 7,200-seat BankUnited Center. NBA scouts were there, too. About a dozen of them. They were there to see Duke forward Kyle Singler and Duke guard Nolan Smith.

This is what happens when fifth-ranked Duke visits UM. There’s a buzz in the air. Stuff happens for the first time in a long time, and maybe the first time ever.

In the end, however, this was the same old story. Duke won 81-71, and the Blue Devils stayed on track for yet another national title run.

Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, who celebrated his 64th birthday Sunday, saw his team improve to 23-2 overall and 10-1 in the Atlantic Coast Conference, good enough to stay atop the conference standings.

The Blue Devils say they still aren’t good enough to be No. 1.

“We’re still in the process of becoming a better team,” Krzyzewski said.

But Sunday’s gritty victory got Duke closer to answering a bedeviling question — who will be the No. 3 scorer behind Smith and Singler?

Sophomore guard Seth Curry, the younger brother of Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry, took another step toward that title. Curry, who had 22 points in Wednesday’s rousing 79-73 victory over No. 20 North Carolina, ended with 16 points Sunday.

But his timing was the real key. Curry carried Duke in the first half with 13 points while Smith, who only played nine first-half minutes, was in the locker room with an eye injury.

“If you have an MVP for the game,” Krzyzewski said of Curry, who also had five steals, “give it to Seth.”

Ever since guard Kyrie Irving sustained a season-ending toe injury on Dec. 4, Duke has been searching for that third offensive option that could deliver the school its 16th Final Four appearance and its fifth national title. With Irving, Singler and Smith, Duke seemed to be headed in that direction.

“We had a perimeter you couldn’t defend,” Krzyzewski said.

Duke doesn’t have that right now. But it’s developing.

“We’ve got a lot of guys we can count on,” Smith said.

And Duke has a lot of ways to win. Smith ended with a game-high 18 points Sunday, 16 in the second half.

“He played like the All-American he is in the second half,” Hurricanes coach Frank Haith said.

Singler ended with 14 points. Throw in Curry’s 16 points and there’s your Big Three — Smith, Singler and Curry.

Miami (15-10, 4-7) countered with guards Malcolm Grant (16 points) and Durand Scott (10 points) and center Reggie Johnson (16 points). The ‘Canes were energized by Grant’s 12-point first half, fueled by him going 3 for 4 on 3-pointers. But then he picked up two fouls in about 30 seconds and went to the bench with 9:32 left in the half.

“Really frustrating,” Grant said. “I’m not out there able to help my team.”

At that point, it was truly back-and-forth basketball. The first half had 12 lead changes and six ties. But then Duke turned to another way it can win — defense.

Duke held the lead the entire second half. It had two three-minute stretches in the second half where it called on its defense to smother Miami, the second of which allowed Duke to go ahead, 64-57, with 8:20 left. Miami wouldn’t get closer than six points the rest of the game.

UM fans had hopes of pulling the upset. They could have used the victory a big way. And it was a prime opportunity. Because of the injury to Irving and the search for a third offensive option, Krzyzewski said his team is still in its infancy.

“We’re really into December or early January with this team,” he said. “But we’re a good team. We just have to use the rest of the regular season to get better.”

It appears that’s happening.