CAMERON INDOOR STADIUM/ DURHAM—The well-ballyhooed Duke-OSU game began with an excellent entry pass to Mason Plumlee, who scorched his man one-on-one for the first Duke basket of the game. Shortly thereafter, he was summarily evicted from the key by large red-clad men for the remainder of the half. Children were born, marriages failed, and fall turned into winter while Duke went 10 minutes without a field goal. The score at halftime was 31-23, visitors, and the Blue Devils’ fundamental weaknesses seemed clear.
Rebounding does not interest them. Quick fouls on Ryan Kelly expose their lack of depth inside. Seth Curry’s legs hurt. Quinn Cook’s otherwise large heart does not embrace the wing entry pass inside. Rasheed Sulaimon is 18-years old. They are subject to quick penetration, kick-outs for open threes, offensive boards akimbo. Their early season bench provides moral support and not yet too much else. A good team can beat them.
“Ohio State is really good,” explained Coach Mike Krzyzewski.
Two minutes and 12 seconds into the second half, the teams had traded field goals, when Quinn Cook collected a rebound, one of six he would collect on the night. He streaked down court with Plumlee and two defenders, floating an impossibly high pass into the ether halfway up the backboard. The Plumlee dunk that followed was so tremendous, so gravity defying, so Grant Hill-1991-NCAA Title Game-like that it seemed to shake the space —time continuum, unleashing the ghosts of Cameron and making it seem abruptly impossible Duke would lose.
“He gets mad at me for throwing it too low,” said Cook post-game. “Best dunker I’ve ever played with. “ And: “I knew he’d get it.”
From that moment on, Sulaimon was 18 the way Hill was 18 when he dunked on Kansas, as today’s freshman slashed, stuffed and gunned his way to 17 second-half points. Cook channeled two Chris Duhon demi-spins and a Kyrie Irving football-cradle layup, dishing six assists to one turnover the rest of the way. Kelly blocked shots without fouling, contorting his body away from contact a la Shane Battier.
And Mason was just Mason, “one of the best players in the country,” Coach K said. “He has paid the price to get better.”
Ohio State paid too. And if on the long trip back to Columbus they compiled a to-do list for beating this years Duke squad, it might look something like this:
1) Don’t play at Cameron. It’s not fair in there. The crowd was a monster. They shouted the refs into at least one shot clock reset call, and rose frequently to the occasion even before Chris Collins was on his feet howling “Get the f@%k up!” and other love songs. Adrenaline was being filtered from the stands to Duke players on the court like airborne plankton. Coach K: “When our fans left today, they said ‘we won.’ That’s when Cameron’s great. Tonight was one of those times.”
2) Forget the past and fear the two. You can’t blame teams for thinking that Duke is all about the 3-point shot — that’s the way it was last year, and has often been. Last year, the percentage of Duke’s scoring that came from 3-land topped 31%, representing their salvation and their downfall. This year, so far, only 28% of their points come from 3s, and they took just 12 against OSU, making five. Duke will drive on you and look to finish instead of kick out, scoring or drawing fouls. Strange but true.
3) Don’t miss open shots. “I’m not happy,” Thad Motta shared gently with reporters after the game. “We were getting great looks at the basket…you’ve got to be able to knock a few of those down. You can’t come in and shoot 34 percent. If you had told me we were going to shoot 34 percent, I would have said we got ran out of the gym tonight.”
Not run out. Dunked out, and just barely. After the fateful dunk—which tied Plumlee as Duke’s all-time dunk leader, a mark he would surpass 94 seconds later—and the OSU timeout that followed, that the play was replayed many gleeful times on the Jumbotron. As the players retook the floor, Plumlee’s eyes strayed overhead. It was still 33-27 Ohio State, but there was that dunk, looping again and again. He shook his head, ever so slightly, as if seeing a beloved ghost or a sign of beautiful things to come.