Duke has won 29 games this basketball season. None like this. Foul trouble: check. Frigid shooting: check. Stars MIA: check. Rookies tested like never before: check.
The Blue Devils experienced all of the above Sunday night against Creighton in the NCAA tournament, yet still managed to win a 66-50 taffy-pull.
Unsightly though it may have been on television, especially compared to Florida Gulf Coast’s theatrics, and the buzzer-beaters from LaSalle and Ohio State, the victory speaks to Duke’s resilience and versatility.
In advancing to the Sweet 16 for the 21st time in the last 28 years under Mike Krzyzewski, the Blue Devils won with Ryan Kelly and Mason Plumlee saddled with foul trouble. They won shooting 38.8 percent, their worst accuracy in victory this season. They won with Seth Curry missing 7-of-9 from beyond the 3-point arc, and Kelly going 0-for-5 from the field.
“I would have taken that before the game and rolled the dice with my chances,” Creighton coach Greg McDermott said.
“I think today our team just came together on a different level than we have in a while,” Curry said.
Team was the word.
There was freshman Rasheed Sulaimon scoring 21 points, nearly double his average, and grabbing five rebounds. There was another rookie, Amile Jefferson, playing 11 critical minutes, scoring a bucket and snaring an offensive rebound that led to a Curry layup.
There was reserve guard Tyler Thornton with eight points, six rebounds and invaluable defensive work in 23 minutes. And finally, there were the seniors, Kelly and Plumlee playing wisely with four fouls each, and Curry making four of his final six shots.
“It took each and every one of us who played to get this win tonight,” Sulaimon said.
Duke (29-5) and Creighton (28-8) as two of the nation’s most efficient offenses. But instead of seamless and flowing, the game was rough and ragged.
The Blue Jays shot 30.2 percent, far and away their worst of the year. They made a season-low two 3-pointers on 19 attempts.
Doug McDermott, the nation’s No. 2 scorer behind Virginia Tech’s Erick Green, scored 21 points, but he missed 12-of-16 shots from the field.
“I think both teams ramped it up on the defensive end,” Krzyzewski said.
Point guard Quinn Cook applauded Duke’s coaches for their scouting of Creighton.
“We knew exactly which player did what, and I think we made Doug McDermott work,” Cook said. “We made him work all night.”
A near-certain first-team All-American, McDermott scores inside with either hand. He makes a silly 47 percent of his 3-point attempts. And he never stops moving.
“McDermott is such a beautiful player,” Krzyzewski said on the eve of Sunday’s game. “He's really one of the best offensive players I've seen in the last decade in college basketball, because he's a counter puncher. They run stuff for him, and if it's not there, he sees if it's not there, and he goes right to his counter punch. He has another read.
“And many of his shots are made before he gets the ball. So that's a beautiful part of basketball, through offensive movement. If you just put one of those highlighters on him and watched him the entire time, he's so difficult to defend because you don't know exactly what he's going to do, and he's making his shot before he gets the ball.
“Now, he can make it after he gets the ball, too, but so many of it as he gets it and he does something with it. Just a tremendous basketball player, and his dad and his staff have done a great job of giving him that freedom and the movements that they have.”