DURHAM, N.C. — The Legend of Ryan Kelly came to life Saturday night.
In his first game back since a foot injury forced him out of the lineup on Jan. 8, the Duke senior put on a show nobody could have seen coming. Kelly didn’t even see it coming. Just last week, the Blue Devils forward said he didn’t expect to return until Tuesday’s game against Virginia Tech.
But there was the veteran Blue Devil, all 6-foot-10 of him — with long arms and a patchy beard — raining 3-pointers and hitting pull-up jumpers against No. 5 Miami on Saturday. Kelly gave Duke the kind of memorable performance that creates legends as the No. 3 Blue Devils prevailed 79-76.
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Granted, Kelly is not a legend, at least he wasn’t prior to Saturday. But 36 points in the biggest contest of the season with the nation’s eyes peering in is something folks along Tobacco Road will talk about for years.
“We were all privileged to see one of the performances of the ages, I think, by Ryan Kelly,” said Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, who is in his 33rd season at the helm. “We say spectacular really doesn’t do his performance justice. One for the ages. Probably as good a performance a Duke player has had in Cameron, especially based on the fact that he hasn’t played for two months.”
Plus, it was a sweet revenge game for Duke (25-4, 12-4 ACC), too. The Blue Devils dropped the first meeting by 27 points (90-63) in Coral Gables, FL, and if not for Kelly, this game was in some ways like that one. Miami (23-5, 14-2) was darn good again.
Devils’ stars Mason Plumlee (12 points, five rebounds) and Seth Curry (seven points) were a combined 15 points under their season averages. Curry failed to score in the first game, and after playing just 43 hours earlier at Virginia, he had to go 38 minutes on a bad ankle and struggled.
“I was a little tired, (and) I shot the ball (poorly) today,” Curry said. “I’m just glad we got the win.”
So, if not for Kelly, this fabled old hall may have been quiet and the Blue Devils could have been facing a shocking possibility of finishing fifth in the ACC. Instead, Kelly’s return and his performance put Duke right back into the national championship picture, regardless of where it finishes in the ACC standings and its NCAA tournament seed.
Plumlee said he wasn’t once double-teamed by Miami, a huge difference from how Virginia defended the 6-11 senior in the 73-68 loss at Charlottesville on Thursday. Curry and freshman Rasheed Sulaimon said they felt more open on the perimeter, and Duke’s bench, which wasn’t very deep when Kelly went down, is a bit longer with the added experience reserves gained in Kelly’s absence.
But as much as the story is that Duke is again a major national title contender, Kelly’s night and all of its delicious trimmings is the soup du jour.
“I wouldn’t say it was a dream, I was just trying to do whatever it took to win,” said Kelly, who did made 10 of 14 field-goal attempts, including seven 3-pointers. “Today, I was taking shots … they were going in. If they weren’t I’d have played my hardest to win.”
Kelly also grabbed seven rebounds, handed out an assist and picked up a pair of steals and a blocked shot. He had a full day, but that’s nothing new for Kelly. He’s always been a player who prides himself on executing the intangibles of the game.
He is Duke’s best communicator on defense, its best defender in transition, and his length makes him a bit annoying to opposing teams that constantly struggle trying to matchup with him. Kelly is a flat-out gamer.
“Ryan will tell you he’s not the fastest guy but he knows how to play his position so well,” Plumlee said. “He guards well, he gets rebounds … he’s an experienced player and he knows how to play. It all helps.”
Kelly, who didn’t play in Thursday’s loss, learned on Friday that he was starting against the Hurricanes. Krzyzewski said Kelly claimed he was well enough to play at Virginia, but he hadn’t practiced so the legendary coach chose to keep him out.
The Raleigh native had reached the 20-point mark just once in 15 games this season before the injury, and his career-high before Saturday was 23 points. His new career high also matches the single-game high in the ACC this season. Virginia’s Joe Harris lit up Duke just two days earlier for 36 points.
It took some grit, too. Kelly rode his last fumes of adrenalin to carry through the final seconds.
“I was tired at times out there,” said Kelly, who drained 7 of 9 3-point attempts. “But I just pushed myself through it.”
Curry, who has witnessed older brother Stephon Curry of the Golden State Warriors put on some amazing shooting displays, was quite impressed by his teammate.
“I don’t even l know what to say,” Curry said. “He went out there and hit every shot, and to have the legs to do that without playing for two months is amazing. I don’t know what to say, it’s something we will remember forever.”