DURHAM, N.C. — Revenge can be sweet, even if it wasn’t intended.
Well, that’s what No. 2 Duke was saying late Wednesday night about its 73-68 victory over fourth-ranked Ohio State at Cameron Indoor Stadium in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge.
Quite frankly, there were much bigger and more palatable things for the Blue Devils to talk about, such as growth, toughness and finding a way to beat a Buckeyes team that seemingly had them on the ropes but wasn’t able to put them away like last year in Columbus.
The Buckeyes won that game by 22, and it actually was a bit more lopsided than that. But this Duke team is different from last year’s splintered bunch. These Devils are unified. They played this game with a common purpose and now have beaten three Final Four teams from last March.
“We certainly wanted it, and we had to prove as a team that after winning our first championship (Battle 4 Atlantis) we could put that behind us and take that next step,” said Duke senior forward Ryan Kelly, who had 15 points. “Last year is last year, and we couldn’t make that step last year, and we wanted to make that step and prove this is a whole new team.”
Kelly has a point. Duke never really got it going in typical Blue Devils fashion last season, and it ended unlike any other in legendary coach Mike Krzyzewski’s previous 32 seasons: losing in their opening game of the NCAA Tournament to No. 15 seed Lehigh.
Many Duke fans attribute the origin of that downfall to the loss to Ohio State. Despite some positive moments throughout the season, that game was the one that set doubt within the team and it never entirely subsided.
So much of what’s talked about among the players, and at times the coaching staff, is leaving last year behind and marching forward. So far it’s working, though it didn’t appear that way early.
The Blue Devils were almost too amped in the early stages, and given that they already had beaten then-No. 3 Kentucky and a second-ranked Louisville squad, it seemed obvious why. Though it backfired a bit.
Ohio State responded nicely to the intensity and sweltering old barn and may even have gotten into the Blue Devils’ heads.
It was an impressive display of gritty Big Ten basketball, and it required that Duke raise its physicality and intensity to at least match the visitors. That’s why the Devils’ claims of having no interest in exacting revenge might be somewhat believable.
“They were playing physical in the beginning and knocked us back,” Duke guard Quinn Cook said. “In the second half, we just wanted to play physical as well. We were just competing. There was no trash talking out there, it was just us competing.”
Duke did more than compete; it handled every facet of what the Buckeyes threw its way after the intermission. OSU stars Aaron Craft and Deshaun Thomas, who combined to convert 15 of 23 field goal attempts in last year’s game, were 9 for 29 Wednesday. Ohio State had just six assists after registering 18 a year ago.
Some of the Buckeyes sensed Duke’s elevated confidence, but also believe payback was part of the Devils’ mantra.
“I guarantee they thought about last year, with the way we were able to play last year at home and win by the margin we did,” said Craft, who fouled out after handing out only one assist to go with three turnovers. “I think about games I’ve lost every day. Every game I’ve lost in college, those come up, those are in the back of your mind.
“Competitors, those are in your mind day in and day out.”
Perhaps no Duke player competed more than senior center Mason Plumlee. He finished with 21 points, 17 rebounds and his share of battle scars, though he doesn’t mind.
After all, this wasn’t about revenge, he said, it was about getting better.
Regardless of Duke’s mission, it was accomplished.