CAMERON INDOOR STADIUM/DURHAM – Seven minutes into Sunday’s nail-biter at Cameron Indoor Stadium, Rhode Island–a team picked to finish ninth (out of 14) in the Atlantic 10 Conference–took the lead over No. 5 Duke, on a layup by URI guard Keith Cothran. For the rest of the game, Rhode Island would either be ahead of–or tied with–the Blue Devils, save for the first and last minutes of the second half. Of course, the last minute is the only one that mattered.

Fittingly, Kyle Singler–who turned out a solid 25 point/5 rebound/5 assist performance, and is one of Duke’s brighest spots this year–gave his team both leads. After Duke had whittled a 12-point deficit down to one point at halftime (thanks, in part, to several hard-charging drives by Jon Scheyer, who had 23 points, 13 from the line), Singler scored the first basket of the second half, giving Duke a precarious 35-34 lead. Then, after Rhode Island dominated for much of the half (you read that correctly), Singler hit a pair of free throws at the 57-second mark, putting his team up 78-77. After one more lead change, Duke prevailed, 82-79, in a game that Coach Mike Krzyzewski described as “the best game yet in college basketball” this year.

Singler’s greatest contribution, however, was not his shooting. It was putting a stop, finally, to URI’s indefatigable shooting guard, Jimmy Baron–who went 7-for-8 from behind the arc in the second half alone. (His one missed three was a desperation shot from half-court as time expired.) When air-tight defense from Scheyer, and then Greg Paulus, could not contain Baron’s long-range theatrics (including a thirty-footer that silenced the crowd), Krzyzewski put his 6-8 sophomore on the guard–resulting in a blocked shot, and the end of the line for Rhode Island.

“Baron had one of the great halves of any kid here, that we’ve played,” Krzyzewski said after the game.

Indeed, Baron’s performance, really, had nothing to do with Duke: his shots were going in, no matter what. More troubling was Duke’s inability to contain 6-8 power-forward Delroy James, who scored at will by cutting through Duke’s defense, pulling up, and knocking down short-range jumpers. By the end of the game, he had 21 points, on 9-for-12 shooting. Singler couldn’t stop him, and Krzyzewski didn’t even try putting a back-up big man on him (or starting-center Brian Zoubek, for that matter). As we’ve noted here before, Duke is facing some serious trouble at the 4 and 5 spots. Lance Thomas is serving capably as a backup forward/center who can score quickly (though not from the line; he was 0-for-2 Sunday), if not dominate defensively–but the rest of the pack, Singler excluded, has yet to turn out a convincing performance down low, on either end of the court.

Tomorrow’s game vs. Southern Illinois, in the semi-finals of the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic, will be Duke’s biggest test yet: can they bounce back from a humbling near-loss, and step up their game in the paint?